Most people have a list – long or short – of cities they’d like to visit someday. For those with a finite budget and a limited amount of time, this list has to be ranked by such factors as travel costs, interest and opportunity. Still, in the end there is a list of, say, a dozen or so places that are at the top, somewhere; cities it would be a pleasure to visit, stay in and see.
This is not that list.
There are places in the world where you do not want to go. It’s not that they’re hell-holes (although some are), but simply that they are ugly, boring, stupid and useless. Places that actually lower the level of the Earth’s value as a planet. Places that you would not visit again unless forced to at gun-point – and then only after long, serious thought about the trade-off (“Would it just be a flesh wound?”). Places that you would probably want to make sure were in that global targeting database on file somewhere in the Pentagon.
That sort of list.
10. Shigatse, China
Tibet is the best example of where the velvet glove of the Chinese government is most obviously shown to be pretty thin. Foreign tourists from all over the world trickle in here, trying to glimpse the magic of Shangri-la. Since Shigatse is a former Tibetan Buddhist holy city and the site of the 15th century Tashilhupo Monastery, built by the first Dali Lama, you’d think it’s a logical place to visit. The only problem is, the Chinese government tore down the original monastery in 1961 and built a replica – in concrete. The monasteries and holy sites all have the staged feel of museums. Or zoos. When visiting China, if you are given a choice between a week in Chongqing (“the most polluted city in the world”) or a day in Shigatse, choose the former. You might die of emphysema, but you won’t feel so damned sad.
Lest anyone think that this list is biased against non-European cities, we offer London. At least for the next year – and very likely even after that – you do not want to visit this city. Both the 2012 Olympics and the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee are being held there at the same time (what genius thought that one up?), so both the crowds and the prices will be brutal. The fun, touristy places of old have either been revamped to meet current proper GroupThink standards (with huge entry fees) or torn down. The CCTV cameras on every single street corner are disturbing enough (the book Nineteen Eighty-Four was written by an Englishman, remember), but the paranoia level is ratcheting up even further with all the big events. Unfortunately, the precautions will probably be ineffectual: How do you secure a city this size when the population essentially doubles overnight? Avoid London at all costs. If you must visit the UK, try sunny Manchester, instead.
8. Vientiane, Laos
Even with the steamy heat (Vientiane is located on the banks of the Mekong River), roving packs of vicious dogs, pimps offering alarmingly young prostitutes, purse-snatching gangs outside the hotels and bedbugs teeming within, Vientiane still manages to disappoint. From all reports, the French were somewhat vague and distracted during their years of colonial rule in Laos, but the current government can’t even manage to get the buses to run on time. The monasteries are all pretty “museums” and the best real museum is the one featuring the plethora of landmines in the country. And, no, before you jump to conclusions, the mines weren’t put there by Americans: The North Vietnamese, Khmer Rouge, the Chinese and even the Pathet Lao themselves spread them around in great numbers, then forgot where they put them. Even getting out of Vientiane is a chore.
7. Sana’a, Yemen
For centuries, Yemen was the cross-roads for international trade: coffee, frankincense, gold, ivory, rhinoceros horns, slaves, hordes of invading armies and vicious pirates. You know, the good old days. Well, it’s not nearly that nice, now. Sana’a is really sort of a theme park of what most Westerners think of when they consider al-Qaida: poor, nasty, brutish and heavily armed. Even other folks in the Middle East think of Sana’a as being too pointless and dangerous to visit.
6. Bangui, Central African Republic
There are reasons for visiting the Central African Republic – business and eco-tourism, for example – but there are no sane reasons to visit, let alone spend one hour, Bangui. It’s not just the neglect and poverty, or even the casual “of course we’re going to rob visitors, that’s what they’re for” attitude, it the defeated acceptance that this is about as good as it will ever get. Which isn’t true, necessarily. Come back in about 80 years.
5. Dzerzhinsk, Russia
There are so many awful cities in Russia, each with its own carefully crafted level of awfulness that it’s difficult to choose among them. In the final analysis, Dzerzhinsk is probably the best example of awfulhood because there is absolutely no reason for its existence. Considering that it was named after Felix Dzerzhinski, the founder of the brutal Cheka (the forerunner of the even more brutal KGB), it should have been razed, ploughed under and planted with wheat after the fall of the Soviet Union. But, no, it’s still there. Ugly, polluted, boring and pointless, it’s still there.
4. Manaus, Brazil
Yes, we know that Joseph Conrad wrote Heart of Darkness about the Congo, but the last line can easily be used to describe Manaus. It’s not that a bad place, per se, if you ignore the heat, disease, mosquitoes, smell, damp, mold, poor hotel service (where even inefficiency is badly performed), bed bugs, dangerous driving habits of cab drivers, lack of anything to see or do, humidity, urban decay and the well-deserved sullen stares of resentment from the city’s many desperately poor people. No, it’s not just that. It’s the fact that it costs so very much to get the hell out of there. Unless you never go there in the first place.
3. Monterrey, Mexico
You could just substitute “Nuevo Laredo” or “Guadalajara” or a dozen other cities and large towns in this area of Mexico, but it’s all, basically, the same situation. This is worse than Bogota, Columbia, where kidnapping is just a business (and a profitable, even franchised, business at that) or Mogadishu, Somalia, where the justly applied term “failed state” keeps all but the terminally (usually literally) stupid visitors out. No, Monterrey is where dozens of people – many of them apparently chosen at random – are routinely rounded up, tortured, killed and decapitated as part of an advertising campaign in a on-going war between the Sinaloa Cartel and Zeta drug cartels. Feeling depressed? Visit Monterrey. That’ll take care of it.
2. Port-au-Prince, Haiti
It isn’t just the lack of any basic amenities, safe food and water or semblance of organization; it’s the sheer stupid, stubborn and pointless corruption and disorganization that gets a visitor to Port-au-Prince down. To be fair, Haiti has had a hard time of it, historically: a legacy as a giant sugar plantation/death camp for hundreds of thousands of African slaves, a series of ruling thugs scoring on the far end of the murderous dementia bell curve, deforestation, poverty, disease, neglect and, most recently, the massive earthquake in 2010 – it’s all pretty awful. At least the earthquake brought the world’s attention, accompanied by billions of dollars in aid. But, no, the petty Haitian government officials have managed to actually make Port-au-Prince worse off than it was the day after the earthquake. If, for your sins, you are required to go there, expect the worst and you will not be disappointed.
1. Harare, Zimbabwe
According to the saccharine saying, If you really love someone, let them go and they will come back. On the other hand, if you really hate someone, let them go to Harare and you can be fairly certain that they will never come back. Yes, the worst place in the world is, without a doubt, Harare, Zimbabwe. If a delegation of intergalactic ambassadors came to Earth, landed in Harare and based their knowledge of our world on this one place, they’d burn this planet to a cinder. And be justified in doing so. Harare is that awful. The people who run that place are so corrupt, so murderous, so hateful that they would make a seventh-generation Quaker pick up a rifle and call in an air strike. And the worst part – the terrible, disgusting, monstrous part – is that 40 years ago, people used to go there on purpose. On vacation.
If, you think that this list has been overly harsh in its criticism of other people’s home towns, remember what your mother used to say about your bedroom. Yes, when you think about it, she really did have a point, didn’t she? Make your bed, pick up your clothes, water the plants and for goodness sake! Just open the window! This place just smells. And be nice to guests.
Guest post contributed by Helen Bell. In her spare time she enjoys travelling and writing about her experiences, the good and the not so good. Helen’s preferred way to get into the moment of being a traveler is to travel off the beaten path. When not travelling Helen is a partner at MayoWynneBaxter.