Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
I always pictured the Maldives as a place for honeymooners and the occasional extreme destination weddings. Indeed many of its famous strings of pearls of atolls and isles are taken up with luxury all-inclusive resorts that require a chartered boat or plane to get to, where four-figure prices are not uncommon.
But when I visited recently I found that there’s also space for the backpacker — okay maybe not the starving student in a dorm type of backpacker, but certainly for the budget-conscious. For that matter, there are even budget-conscious honeymooners. I met one such honeymooning couple, Marine and Sebastian from France and Colombia, who scoffed at the boredom they’d experience in a resort, who spent even less than I did.
Here then, are a few tips for those interested in visiting the Maldives on the cheap.
“Panmunjom is closed right now.” Our guide, David, explained, referring to the farthest point inside the Demilitarized Zone or DMZ that it was possible to visit. One conference room there is built so that it straddles both North and South Korea. One can walk from one end of the room to the other and back, traversing North and South.
“It’s closed because of the tension,” David said. The tension — yes, we’d all read about it in the papers, with North Korea testing nuclear weapons underground and firing missiles over Japan. “In fact, all of the DMZ can be closed at any moment without notice.”
In the past three years I have visited three cities in three very different parts of the world that somehow nonetheless call each other to mind: Dubrovnik, Croatia; Khiva, Uzbekistan; and Pingyao, China. Each is a historic city with medieval walls that fortunately have been preserved. None is a grand imperial capital like Istanbul or Beijing or Rome, with all the attendant wars and conflagrations and changes in political power that inevitably paint over those cities again and again as palimpsests.
Below, then, is a point-by-point comparison of three wondrous places that you should visit when you get a chance.
I always wanted to get to Dunhuang, and not just because half of its name is half of my given name in Chinese. This summer I finally got there.
The Mogao Grottoes of Dunhuang are located in the province of Gansu in northwestern China, once an important stop — and a wealthy town — on the Silk Road. For a thousand years starting in the 4th century, prominent local families sponsored artisans to paint and sculpt one cave after another at Mogao in Buddhist themes. Some of the painters and sculptors wound up spending half a lifetime there. So many caves were painted and sculpted that Mogao also came to be known as the place of a “A Thousand Buddha Grottoes.” Even today, 735 remain. Many caves are masterpieces of Buddhist art, and some reminded me of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling.
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."