Category: Travels

I don’t find all global cities increasingly the same

Here is my Bloomberg column on that question, recently raised by Megan McArdle, here is one excerpt from my take:

Maybe it is only the “major” cities that are becoming more alike. If so, what is “major” supposed to mean? Among the more populous cities I have visited are Lagos, Tokyo, Mexico City, Delhi, Sao Paulo, Shanghai and Cairo. I can find very real similarities among their gyms, coffee shops, hotels and smart phones used by the locals. Still, it is hard to argue they are converging on some common set of experiences or cultural memes. Those cities show different movies (for the most part), play different kinds of music in public spaces, serve different dominant cuisines, exhibit different modes of personal dress, and of course speak different languages.

And:

Even central London and central Manhattan have fundamental differences, and that is without bringing Harlem or East Harlem into it. I almost always feel pleasant and relaxed walking around London. In central Manhattan, I often feel a bit stressed. I go to Manhattan to hear jazz, to visit contemporary art galleries, to soak up the energy of the streets. When I am in London (less frequently), I visit well-stocked bookshops, eat Indian food, and absorb a very different vision of government and politics.

To be blunt, if the two cities are so similar, why do I much prefer spending time in London?

…More than ever before, London and New York offer more good ways of having different experiences.

There is much more at the link, hearkening back to my earlier book Creative Destruction: How Globalization is Changing the World’s Cultures.

Ghent travel notes

Ghent is one of the loveliest small- to mid-sized cities in Europe, perhaps lucky to have never received UNESCO World Heritage status, unlike Bruges.  Ghent was one of the earliest seats of the continental Industrial Revolution, through textiles, and the city core has splendid architecture from late medieval times up through the early 20th century.  It is what Amsterdam should be, but no longer is.

The center is full of interesting, quirky small shops, along the lines of the cliche you do not expect to actually find.  Only rarely are restaurant menus offered in English.  Most of the tourists in the hotel seemed to be Chinese.

Walk around, don’t miss Graffiti Street, and the Ensors and the Roualt in the Fine Arts museum complement the more famous items there.  The Industrie Museum has numerous textile machines from the 18th century onwards; I found it striking how different the 1770 machine was from the 1730 vintage, but how little by 1950 the machines had advanced .

For dining I recommend the Surinamese restaurant Faja Lobi and the Syrian Layali Habab, the mainstream Belgian places seem to be good but no better than good unless you pay a lot of money.

Most of all, you should walk around and ponder why we seem unable (or is it unwilling?) to build such compelling cities these days.

Quito travel notes

LLapingachos are the way to go: “an Ecuadorian dish of potato patties or thick potato pancakes stuffed with cheese and cooked on a hot griddle until crispy.”

Given the landlocked nature of Quito, the seafood — and I don’t just mean lake fish — is remarkably good.  Try the fried corvina at Las Corvinas de Don Jimmy, in the Mercado Central, with a drink and ceviche only $6.  Zazu is one of the best restaurants in South America, and many of the dishes are below $15.  I recommend La Briciola for Italian food and chocolate ice cream, noting that in Latin America the most boring-sounding pastas, such as the ravioli, are the ones to order.

The 17th century heritage of Quito makes the colonial center feel like central Mexico.  Think “built up early, backwater later on, for a long time.”  The mix of mestizo and indigenous.  The design of the inner city and its churches.  The role of crafts.  The persistence of particular foodstuffs, in this case potatoes and corn and avocado and palmitos.  Popcorn was invented somewhere around here.

The weather is perfect every day.

Compañía de Jesús is arguably the most beautiful church I have seen.

There is an unusually high percentage of Indian-American tourists (do any of you know why?), that said the absolute number of tourists is quite small.  Most people are passing through on their way to the Galapagos, described by one skeptical pro-Trump tourist we met as “$7,000 worth of lizards.”

Following dollarization, it seems that all the Kennedy half dollars and Sacagawea dollar coins have ended up here.  .

Cops dress like superheroes to make themselves more approachable by children:

The Saturday “Indian market” at Otavalo is the nicest, most hassle-free market I know.  Cotacachi would be a wonderful place to retire, except I won’t.

The quechua-speaking guide for Cotopaxi volcano loves YouTube and listens to “adventures, news, music, and much more.”  He is still hoping to get a phone with an internet connection, and believes that lack of good education for indigenous children is the country’s biggest problem.

“In 2010, more than 2,600 people were killed in Ecuador, a homicide rate of about 18 per 100,000, almost twice the level the World Health Organization considers an epidemic. This year, the small Andean nation is expected to record 5.6 killed per 100,000, one of Latin America’s lowest rates.”  (Excellent piece, WSJ link).

On the “is now the right time to visit Quito?” scale, I give 2019 a 9.5.

Guayaquil notes

An ideal city for a day trip, fly in and back out in the evening.  It is much nicer and safer than its longstanding icky reputation, and by this point it is probably safer than pickpocket laden, iPhone-snatching Quito (NB: I strap everything to my inner body).  The seafood is first-rate, the city is the future of Ecuador, and I saw more Afro-Ecuadorians than I was expecting to.  Guayaquil overrates its own Malecón, but at some point it will all end up looking good.  Just not yet.  In the meantime, I recommend the Park of the Iguanas.

Memphis

A few days ago, a few of you thought I was dumping on Memphis.  I did say the city is not an economic development success story, but it is perhaps my favorite place to visit in the American South.  It has the best musical traditions, for instance generating Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis, Carl Perkins, and Johnny Cash, all at more or less the same time, with many others later including Lonnie Mack, Isaac Hayes, and Booker T.  It is one of the classic barbecue cities, most of all for ribs.  Beale Street remains a wonderful place to hear music, as it is not nearly as ruined by tourists as Broadway in Nashville or Bourbon Street in New Orleans.  It is also one of the American cities most likely to look as if it is still 1963, or is that 1957?  Finally, Memphis is the starting off point for a drive down Highway 61 into the heartland of the Mississippi Delta, one of the essential American journeys and yes you still can hear rural blues music there.

If you have never done a three-day Memphis trip, I would strongly urge this upon you.

What has and has not changed in Guangzhou

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is the opener:

I hadn’t been to Guangzhou in more than 30 years, and I wanted to see what I would remember.

And here is one bit:

How about the train ride between Hong Kong and Guangzhou? In 1988 I saw lone farmers plowing the field with their oxen. These days the journey brings you through Shenzhen, China’s tech capital, where many iPhones are assembled and which has eclipsed Guangzhou as a source of economic dynamism.

And yet I cannot conclude that Guangzhou is altogether a story of change and change alone.

That all said, Guangzhou is no longer an economic leader in China.  Overall it struck me that Guangzhou has become a bit of an economic backwater, albeit at an enormous size and decent (compared to the rest of China) standard of living.

Azerbaijani road trip

About half the world’s mud volcanoes are in Azerbaijan, and some good ones are about an hour’s drive from the edge of Baku.

I saw a Koch Industries truck parked about ten miles down the road.

The Zoroastrian Fire Temple attracts scores of Indian tourists, unlike anything in Baku.  It dates mostly from the 18th century.  And:

Yanar Dag (Azerbaijani: Yanar Dağ, meaning “burning mountain”) is a natural gas fire which blazes continuously on a hillside on the Absheron Peninsula on the Caspian Sea near Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan (a country which itself is known as “the Land of Fire“). Flames jet into the air 3 metres (9.8 ft) from a thin, porous sandstone layer.

Here are photos from somebody else’s Azerbaijan road trip.

Baku bits, what to see in Baku

The vertigo starts, as upon arrival in the airport there are few direct clues as to which country you might be in.  You will see people from every part of this hemisphere, and furthermore the Azerbaijanis won’t stand out as such.  The facility itself looks like an average of five or six other airports, like how some TV shows film in Canada to get that generically American look.

Matters seem to go downhill as one rides into town — “Dubai, yet without the charm” is how I described it to Yana in an early, premature email.  Yet this petro-city grows on you quickly, and I don’t just mean the cherry jam.  Closer to town center there are interesting buildings in every direction, and of three sorts: the medieval Old City with walls, a blossoming of late 19th century European architecture (and they are still doing contemporary copies of it), and the Brasilia-Dubai like modern buildings.

In 1905 about half of the world’s oil was produced in or near Baku.  In 1942, it was Stalingrad that stopped Hitler from taking the place over and perhaps changing the course of history.  Not long ago, oil and gas were estimated to account for sixty percent of the gdp of Azerbaijan.

And you can see that money being spent, to the benefit of the tourist I might add.  Baku has perhaps the most attractive and walkable seaside promenade.  The walker has views of the Caspian, of spectacular buildings, of the port, and there are multiple paths with beautiful gardens and cactuses and baobab trees, benches everywhere, Eurasians in abundance, and in August the weather is perfect for a long stroll every night.

Baku is reputed to be the world’s lowest capital city, standing about 28 meters below sea level.

It is the first Shiite country I have visited, and it seems less conservative than say the Turkey of ten years ago, for instance in terms of dress and demeanor.  A small percentage of women wear burkhas, most of all by the seaside walk, but the look of their companions suggests most are tourists or expats.

In short, several generations of communist-enforced atheism do have a persistent effect.  One Azerbaijani, with whom I had an extended dialogue through a translator, stressed to me how much universal Soviet education elevated the region (and she was not pro-Soviet or pro-communist by any means).  The Azerbaijanis address me in Russian, as few can converse with ease in English.

The police go to great lengths to limit jaywalking, which is in any case dangerous.  The city roads are wide, and like some parts of central Brasilia have few traffic lights.  Never have I wished so often that I was on the other side of the street as in Baku.

Baku has three working synagogues, and, unlike in almost every other country in the world, they do not require police protection.  It is a remarkably safe city.

There is strong sentiment here that Nagorno-Karabakh, technically a part of Azerbaijan but not controlled by the government in over twenty years, is ruled by “Armenian terrorists,” backed by Putin. This issue, largely neglected outside the region, is likely to flare up again.  When I applied for a visa, I had to answer whether I come from Armenian blood (no).  It seems like a much less friendly conflict than say between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

Baku was the easternmost part of the Roman Empire — does that make it European?

“Relatives may eat your flesh but they won’t throw away your bones” is an old Azerbaijani saying.

Newborns are washed in salt water, to make them truthful and bold.

As a vacation spot, I recommend three to four days here for anyone looking for something off the beaten path, but without logistical difficulties.  Here is Wikipedia on Baku.

A dialogue in Seherli Tandir restaurant, this evening

There are three tables, all close enough to chat, and at them there was TC, a Saudi family with a husband, two kids and a woman in full burkha, and a woman from a fine New York City neighborhood, perhaps 65 years old.  Suddenly, the NYC woman paused from her chat with me:

NYC woman, to Saudi table: (With a strong NYC accent) So where are you all from?

Saudi Man: Saudi Arabia.

NYC woman: Is that your wife in there?

Saudi Man: Yes.

NYC woman: Is she driving yet?

Saudi Man: No

NYC woman: Why not?

Saudi Man: She does not need to.

NYC woman: I was just wondering, because they made such a big deal out of it on TV.  And I was thinking maybe they aren’t all driving yet.

Saudi Man: She does not need to.

NYC woman: But why not?

Saudi Man: Madam, you live in New York City.  Are you driving yet?

Kiev notes

The city has some of the best Soviet war memorials, noting that the text at the main Babi Yar monument does not in fact refer to “Jews.”  The museums are much better than expected, with at least five worthy of a visit, including the National Museum, the folk art museum, Scythian gold museum, and Russian art museum, and the Khanenko museum.

I am underwhelmed by the economy here, and Kiev is one of the least bustling national capitals I have seen, especially for a country of its size.  The distribution of stores and commercial ventures is so thin as to remind me of some parts of San Francisco.  Yes, this is August but still the streets feel empty, even in the center of town.  Maybe especially in the center of town.  The earlier Soviet infrastructure has not been built over, and the basic outline of the city does not yet feel “post-reform.”

Poland and Ukraine had about the same per capita gdp in 1992, but now Poland’s is three times higher.  Even Russian wages are twice as high.  The Ukrainian economy has shrunk 17.8% since 2008, and that is not even counting the loss of territory, which still counts statistically as part of Ukrainian gdp.

Markers of the new, post-2014 Ukrainian nationalism are seen frequently, and the use of the Russian language is actively discouraged.

There is a brand or chain of Karaoke parlors called “MAFIA Karaoke.”

Unlike some parts of Moscow, there are few signs of a rip-off culture here with respect to tourists. The citizenry is unfailingly helpful when possible, though short answers are hard to come by.  People in random encounters seem quite willing to give all sorts of (wordy) advice as to what you should be doing and why.

Japanese restaurants are more common than Chinese.  After Italian, there is not much culinary diversity to be seen, but the Georgian restaurants are among the best in the city.  As for a single recommendation, Kanapa [Kanape] for “nouvelle Ukraine” would be my clear first pick, and it is on a picturesque street with many folk art stalls.

If two people each order bottles of mineral water, they will not open one bottle for each person.  Instead, they induce you to first share the first bottle, and then the second, in sequence.  Thus the water is not efficiently conserved.

It is remarkable how many different restaurants serve their chocolate ice cream with a basil leaf on top.