Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Why I Like: Xian

One of ancient Xian's monumental gateways.
At street stalls, raisins and pistachio nuts tumble in piles, and candied fruit gleams in the light of overhead lanterns like Ali Baba treasures. Rosy-cheeked women in headscarves wander past, shopping bags bursting with vegetables, while men in white caps gossip under the trees. Grilled skewers of savoury lamb tempt passers-by with hot aromas. At dusk, the call to prayer wavers down shadowy alleys and over rooftops whose tiles are darkened with age.
The faithful have been called to prayer here for fifteen centuries – nearly as long as Islam itself. The old town is infused with a promise of the Middle East: the smells from its eateries, the clothes of its inhabitants, the swooping Arabic calligraphy on mellow walls. It’s only when you round a corner and see a pagoda, eaves upturned with long-tailed dragons, that you’re reminded that you’re right in the heart of China, in the ancient city of Xian.
The old neighbourhood of central Xian, China.
Islam came to China along the Silk Route in the mid-seventh century, making Chinese Moslems among the oldest Islamic communities in the world and creating a distinctive Islamic minority group known as the Hui. Estimates suggest Xian’s Muslim population is around 70,000, certainly big enough to give some areas of the city a curiously Middle Eastern flavour. Even better, the Hui live right in the heart of the old city, one of the most wonderfully evocative neighbourhoods in China. Many a tour group flies in and sees nothing but the terracotta army, and in doing so misses out on a truly delightful surprise – a living remnant of China’s ancient past far more fascinating than any dead emperor’s tomb.
Xian’s fortifications are the most extensive and best preserved in China, standing twelve metres high and running for fourteen kilometres, punctuated by four superb gateways at the four points of the compass. Beyond, Xian’s imperial grid system of streets is abandoned to a series of higgledy-piggledy alleys, some so narrow that upturned eaves on either side almost kiss each other. The atmosphere is that of a venerable country town, though perhaps one with a booming population: in the evenings especially, it seems half Xian descends on the Moslem quarter for some very pleasant R&R in a neighbourhood crammed with open-fronted restaurants, street stalls and shops.
Street snacks along Beiyuanmen in Xian.
Beiyuanmen, the street that runs straight north from the Drum Tower, is one of the most charming. Paved with soft grey flagstones and lined by old wooden houses and trees hung with red Chinese lanterns, this is where locals come out for an evening gossip and where the rest of the city turns up to rummage in the shops and, most of all, enjoy the street food. Roujiamo, which features shredded meat wedged between two pieces of steamed bread, is the local equivalent of a hamburger. Nuts, seeds and preserved fruits are other preferred nibbles, as well as a local speciality known as eight-treasures pudding, made from glutinous rice cooked up in little pots on streets stalls, then sprinkled with sugar and sesame seeds.
The chief sight in the Moslem old town is Xian’s Great Mosque. Established in 742 – though the current buildings are mostly from the eighteenth century – this is one of the oldest and most famous mosques in China. Expect a series of symmetrical, interconnected courtyards with traditional Chinese gardens, pagodas with painted eaves, and elaborate stone archways. You might almost be in a Chinese temple, until you notice the absences of dragons on the eaves, the Islamic decorative motifs and stone tablets in Persian and Arabic that mark each building. Fountains splash and bamboo rustles; the giggles of neighbourhood children float from beyond the walls.
Pavilions inside the Great Mosque of Xian, China.
Finding your way to and from this mosque, hidden deep within the Moslem quarter’s rambling alleys, is all part of the fun. For sure you’ll get lost, but it hardly seems to matter. Maybe you’ll come across the covered laneways (Beiyuanmen and Huajie Xiang) that resemble a Middle Eastern bazaar. You can buy just about anything here from Little Red Books to fake antiques, painting scrolls, chopsticks, teapots, ceramics and old coins, or some of the brightly-coloured local folk scenes. Add Muslim prayer rugs and shawls to your haul, and Islamic-style daggers and blue porcelain: wonderful pieces of a distant culture in the heart of China.

Monday, 14 July 2014

History of Travel: The Harley-Davidson

Marlon Brando in The Wild One.
It was after the Second World War that Harley-Davidson motorcycles began to acquire a reputation that went far beyond simple engineering reliability. They went on to become an American legend and associated with adventurous travel. The initial impetus was provided by the many servicemen returning from WWII who were unable to readapt to civilian life. They took to wearing ragged jeans and leather jackets and drifted around the country in motorcycle gangs, with the motorcycle of choice being the Harley-Davidson that many of them had seen while on active service. This proved to be something of a mixed blessing for the company, as some gangs became involved in organised crime. On the other hand, the lifestyle was glamorised in Hollywood. In 1953, The Wild One became a landmark movie of rebellion against conformity through its depiction of the Black Rebels Motorcycle Club led by a character named Johnny, played by a smouldering Marlon Brando.

Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper in Easy Rider.
Later, 1969’s Easy Rider became the quintessential ‘road movie’ in which two anti-hero bikers travel through America’s southwest in a search for freedom (or the illusion of it). As a counter-culture movie that achieved cult status, Easy Rider caught the mood of America’s youth and equated motorbikes with freedom on the road. The most famous scene of the movie comes when Wyatt (Peter Fonda) rides off on a silver-chromed, low-slung Harley-Davidson decorated with the Stars and Stripes, to the blasts of the rock anthem ‘Born to be Wild’. Black jackets, blue jeans and Harley-Davidsons became ultra cool, associated with the image of the social rebel and outsider. ‘Not so much a means of transport,’ went one of Harley-Davidson’s advertising slogans; ‘More a way of life.’

Movie poster for Electra Glide in Blue
By the end of the 1960s, however, Harley-Davidson was selling just 15,000 motorcycles a year thanks to stiff new competition. Despite that, its mystique continued to grow, with Harley-Davidsons becoming ever more famous through their depiction in television series such as Then Came Bronson (1969-70) and movies such as Electra Glide in Blue (1973). The latter, about a Vietnam veteran turned motorcycle patrolman (played by Robert Blake) on the highways of the Arizona desert, continued the theme of the social misfit, caught between his job and the hippie culture he identifies with. Much later Tom Cruise’s character Maverick in Top Gun (1986) – though far less socially unacceptable – also rides a Harley-Davidson.

Harley-Davidsons have never shaken off the image they developed in the 1960s, although these days most Harley riders are middle-aged men with cash to spend, fancying they’ve acquired something of a rebellious spirit along with their motorcycles. It’s ageing movie stars like Cher, Bruce Willis and Michael Douglas who are Harley owners, as well as ageing royals such as King Juan Carlos of Spain.

A Harley-Davidson Ultra Classic Electra Glide
In the early 1980s the company started to revitalise its fortunes. The technology of the engines was further developed, while the ‘American’ look and character of the machines was maintained. The company also founded the Harley Owners Group (HOG), now the largest factory-sponsored motorcycle club in the world. Clever marketing strategies, including clothing and other merchandising, attracted a whole new generation of Harley owners. Most, according to the company’s own research, are males in their forties with an annual household income of over US$70,000; far from social rebels, Harley riders these days are far more likely to be company executives. 

Harley-Davidson has never shaken off its distinctive American flavour; indeed, it actively promotes it as part of its appeal. To many, Harleys remain a Vietnam-era motorcycle with all the associated trappings of patriotism and ‘being American’, and nostalgia for the ‘good old days’ has seen the bikes acquired a renewed cult status in the United States.

Synonymous with an in-your-face lifestyle and rebellious attitude, there are few marques in the history of transport that have quite the same appeal as a Harley-Davidson.

Sunday, 6 July 2014

On Learning to Queue

There was a time, as a tourist in Paris, when you could just saunter past the Mona Lisa, which hung on a nail in the Louvre like any other painting. Indeed, in 1911 a thief simply unhooked it and walked away. Nobody noticed it was missing until the following day, and it wasn’t recovered for two-and-a-half years.
Crowds at the Mona Lisa
in the Louvre, Paris, France
Since 2005, the smirking Italian has been housed in a gallery that has been carefully designed for managing crowds, and where special acoustics dampen the tourist hubbub. This frankly small and drab painting is one of the most ludicrous must-sees of world tourism. Good luck if you can catch a glimpse of the Mona Lisa, which not only lurks behind thick-bullet-proof glass and a barrier, but must be admired over the heads of black-haired Chinese tourists and Da Vinci Code conspiracy theorists.
Over nine million people a year tramp through the Louvre and, on the busiest days, some 65,000 of them file past the Mona Lisa. Yet this pales in comparison to the nearly 14 million people who visit Nôtre Dame cathedral, where your chances of any quiet contemplation (or prayer) are as remote as smiles on the face of a Parisian waiter.
Crowd control sign, UK
I was in Paris earlier this year and skipped both Nôtre Dame and the Eiffel Tower, thanks to their two-hour queues. This got me to thinking. It seems to me that we’ll all be doing a lot of skipping in future, because queues are just going to lengthen. Quite simply, there are lots of tourists about. This year, some 50 million Chinese alone headed overseas. By 2020, that number is estimated at 100 million. Russians, Indians and Brazilians are also increasingly mobile.
Good for them, but you can be sure crowd management will become a major issue in tourism. A moving walkway has been mooted in the Louvre to keep the crowds moving past the Mona Lisa. Sounds improbable? Actually, there’s already one in the Tower of London to trundle you past the British crown jewels. Nor is the idea new. When Michelangelo’s Pietà was displayed in New York in 1963, queues were shifted along “on a conveyor belt, not unlike the belts used to carry animals into slaughterhouses,” as art critic Robert Hughes recalls in Things I Don’t Know. “I had been granted a prophetic vision of the future of American ideas about museums...”
Timed entrance ticket to the Alhambra,
Granada, Spain
Elsewhere, the solution is timed tickets, as I once found to my alarm when I turned up in Granada in Spain keen to see the Alhambra, only to be turned away at the gates. I confess I only eventually got in by sobbing in the offices of the tourism department, where I shamelessly exploited my media links. So if you’re one of the two million visitors a year hoping to visit the Alhambra (as well you should), be warned: you have to register in advance online for  an entrance ticket, stamped with a specific date and time.
Traffic sign, UK
Finally, I predict we’re going to see lots more queue-jumping in tourism’s future – providing you can afford the privilege, of course. At many airports in Britain, you can now pay £3 to avoid queues at security screening, and just about every international airport already offers fast-track systems to business-class passengers. Tourist sights aren’t immune either. I recently discovered that a regular ticket at the Empire State Building in New York costs US$20, but you can get an express pass for US$45 and head straight to the front of the line.
Maybe, in the end, we’ll just have to make new decisions when we travel. There was a time when I was a “must-see” junkie needing my fix of famous tourist sights, including the Mona Lisa and more cathedrals than I now care to remember. But last time I was in Paris, I just opted out. Two hours in a queue, or time spent sitting in a café watching the world go by? It turned out to be an easy choice, and I dare say more enjoyable than squinting at a painting of an Italian woman who looks like she suffers from toothache.
Besides, I’m keen to enjoy my coffee while I can, before it too is served on a sushi-train conveyor belt, and I’m asked to move quickly along.

Got any stories to share on your tourist queue experiences, or have something to add about what you think about the future of tourism? I’d love to hear your comments, so join the conversation.

Tuesday, 1 July 2014

Why I Like: Bolshoi Theatre

Exterior of the Bolshoi Theatre, Moscow, Russia
The fabled Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow emerged in 2012 from a six-year renovation said to have cost US$680 million, and which has restored it to its imperial-era elegance. Now rich in sumptuous gilt and red Italian velvet and topped by giant crystal chandeliers, the best of its Renaissance and Byzantine décor is polished to a gleam, murals once painted over have been revealed, and proud double-headed eagles replace former Soviet state symbols.
The now world-famous Bolshoi company was founded in Moscow in 1776 as the joint project of entrepreneur and theatre manager Michael Maddox and Prince Urusov. First producing operas and plays in a private home, it moved into the Petrovka Theatre, which was replaced by the Bolshoi Theatre on the same site in 1824. The theatre was designed by Joseph Bové, an eminent Russian architect of Italian extraction, and soon became an architectural icon that today is featured on the 100-rouble banknote.
The newly renovated interior of the Bolshoi Theatre,
Moscow, Russia
Over the years the Bolshoi sustained fire and war damage and was remodeled several times. The latest renovation has returned it as close to the original as possible, while modern additions – such as an underground auditorium – have doubled its useable space. Away from the glitz and glamour of the public areas, extensive repairs have been made to the foundations, acoustics upgraded, and new stage mechanics provide greater flexibility.
Building apart, it’s performances that count, and here the Bolshoi is world class. The Russian word bolshoi means large or grand and, in imperial times, was given to any theatre showing both opera and ballet, then considered to be the leading art forms. The theatre opened in 1825 with a performance of Cinderella, and Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake was launched here in 1877. These, as well as The Sleeping Beauty, The Nutcracker, Giselle and Romeo and Juliet, remain among the popular repertoire.
Performance of The Nutcracker Suite, at the
Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow, Russia
The venue has also hosted many other premiers by leading Russian composers, among them Shostakovich, Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov and Rachmaninoff. Today it also specializes in classical Russian opera on a grand scale, such as Boris Gudunov and The Tsar's Bride.
To many, however, the Bolshoi is particularly associated with ballet. Although it’s one of the oldest ballet companies in the world, it wasn’t until around 1900 that its superb quality and distinct characteristics emerged. The Bolshoi style features superb technique and athleticism and intensity and expressiveness in its dancers. Its great rival, the Mariinsky in St Petersburg (known in Soviet times as the Kirov) takes a less bold and more nuanced approach.
Detail of the sumptuous decor at the
Bolshoi Theatre, Moscow, Russia
During the Soviet era the Bolshoi was used as a vehicle to promote the cultural prestige of the USSR. Frequently touring abroad, its ballet company became known around the world, and promoted the profile of big ballet stars such Maya Plisetskaya, the prima ballerina of the 1960s. At the same time, its role as cultural ambassador sometimes backfired; the Bolshoi was also embarrassed by the defections of some of its leading dancers in the late 1970s.
Yuri Simonov, appointed chief conductor in 1969, became not only the youngest conductor but the longest serving, lasting until 1985. He was noted for bringing the opera company on tours to France, Japan, Austria, Italy and the USA and for re-introducing Wagner to the repertoire. Vassily Sinaisky has been the principle guest conductor since 2002 and in 2010 was appointed artistic director of the Bolshoi Theatre.

Today the Bolshoi boasts the world’s largest ballet troupe, with 220 dancers, and both its ballet and opera remain among the best in the world. At the reopening of the theatre, President Medvedev said it was a happy day for the Russian nation, adding that the Bolshoi Theatre was a great national brands. Freshly gleaming, sumptuously decorated and with a new lease in life, it will surely remain so for a long time to come.