One of the places on the list, Merzouga in Morocco.
That's a sandstorm we're walking into. Photo credit: Kashgar 2002
Some people would say that any travel is good travel. But here at Kashgar we beg to differ. There are some places on planet Earth that are so awful, dispirited, sorry or wretched that one night in the place feels like a year and the memory lingers with you forever. No, I'm not going to include the stalwarts of "never visit" lists, places like the Exclusion Zone of Chernobyl, that cheese wheeling festival in Gloucester or the much maligned Poison Garden of Northumberland (actually quite a nice place). You can easily avoid these holiday attractions if you really want to, besides which each of them has real merit in the eyes of certain beholders such as film makers, bloggers, and aficionados of the quirky and unusual. No, we're talking about transit towns, the kind of places that make you miserable because you're forced to spend time in them when you'd much rather be elsewhere, the kind of places that eat into your vacation time and suck the goddamn soul out of you while they do so. So, here is our list of six places to avoid at all costs. We've been to all of them. Don't say we didn't warn you.
1. Camooweal, Australia
The Camooweal pub. Photo courtesy of Ludo Kuipers OzOutback Internet Services
A small outback town positioned right on the border between Queensland and the Northern Territory of Australia, in a region known as the GAFA (Great Australian Fuck All), Camooweal may (or may not) be quite surprised to find itself on this list. One happy camper wrote recently of their trip through Camooweal "The drive to Camooweal was sparse through the Avon Downs and similar in parts to the Nullarbor but nowhere near as interesting". Another wrote: "CAMOOWEAL! What can we say about Camooweal? Umm, it is the first town over the Queensland border. I think that's about it!" The Sydney Morning Herald's travel guide describes the town as a "strange roadside township" and states that the road from Mount Isa to Camooweal " may well be the worst bitumen road in Australia". Words most frequently used to describe the town in travel blogs are: boring, dry, wet, dusty, flies and locusts. But being boring is the least of Camooweal's problems. Arrive on pension day when the local community of unemployed receives and cashes in their pension cheques, then spends the entire proceedings on booze, and you could find yourself in real trouble. If it is pension day and you must spend the night, take advice from the local police and camp in the dry riverbed just outside of town. Or better still, keep on driving.
2. Dagupan, Philippines
This is the only picture I could find of Dagupan on the whole of the internets.
There's a reason for that.
The official blurb for the Dagupan tourism website states "Dagupan City has come a long way since officially being declared a city on June 20, 1947". I beg to differ. My diary entry for our trip there in January 2000 reads "[we] spend the rest of the day driving grimly to the west coast, finally holing up for the night in a dreadful industrial town called Dagupan. The next morning, we are so appalled by our surroundings that we leave at first light...". Polluted, overpopulated, badly planned and earthquake prone, the city has suffered any number of major calamities including flooding, sinking, the appearance of "sand boils" and unspeakable traffic congestion. Building construction is allowed to proceed 24 hours a day in this town and the constant drone of the river dredgers is maddening. Incidentally, Dagupan has a high concentration of 57 banks and 44 financial institutions, none of which will actually allow you to withdraw money. Avoid at all costs.
3. Debark, Ethiopia
Picture speaks for itself really. Picture courtesy of frockland
A miserable truck stop on the road between Gondar and Aksum, it has become by default an over night stop for western travellers and the entry point for tourism into the Simien Mountains. And boy are the locals cashing in. Looking back at my notes of the trip I reread my description of the town as a "shithole" (twice) and my particular hotel as "one of the worst I've ever seen in my life", then shudder with the force of repressed memories clawing their way back up to the surface of my brain. Our room, a concrete box filled with bed bugs and fleas, was immensely overpriced at US$14 per night, but I was willing pay over the odds because it was apparently the last room in town with a private bathroom - really a stinking alcove with a hole in the floor and a rusty tap half way up the wall. This incidentally, was rated as the best hotel in town and was miles above its competitors in terms of quality. Try to look Debark up on the internet and you are met with an embarrassed silence. Anyone who does mention it does so quickly as if trying to get the taste of the place out of their mouth. If you're planning on travelling through the north of Ethiopia or into the Simien Mountains to view the Gelada Baboons, you might not have a lot of say in whether you stay in Debark because Park Headquarters are located here, and it's the only place to organise permits, (overpriced) guides and poorly-maintained trekking equipment. But at least you can mentally prepare for it, and with a bit of forward planning you might not even have to stay the night.
4. The roads of India and Nepal
A typical Indian road. Note the truck overtaking into oncoming traffic, while our driver contemplates overtaking him. Photo credit: Kashgar.
Bolivia's Road of Death makes it onto every version of this kind of list, and with good reason. But here I've decided to up the ante and include pretty well all the roads in India (and Nepal) outside of the major cities. Why? Drive on a few of them and you'll quickly find out. Using any gear below third is considered a slur on the average Indian driver's manhood, or perhaps it is in the mistaken belief that this will somehow save petrol. It is also the local practice not to use lights at night unless absolutely, and I do mean absolutely, necessary. Nepal, if you can believe it, is even worse because the national 'Use Horn" policy (a slogan consistently found on the back of trucks, in case one was likely to forget) is honed to an especially fine art. These are countries where might is right on the road and cows have absolute right of way over everything. I've seen four (yes four) vehicles attempt to overtake each other at once. Also, watch out for the speed bumps that suddenly appear on otherwise featureless stretches of open road – lets say every 50 kms or so. Another delightful feature of Indian roads are the hordes of local men pissing on the shoulder. Ah India, the world is your urinal - if you're a man. Where all the ladies are passing water is another matter entirely, but presumably they are much better at holding it in. But I digress. Seat belts are never worn unless police are around and accidents are frequent; a recurrent coda to the endless newspaper descriptions of accidents being "and the driver has absconded". Up to this point I have described my personal experiences in hired cars, however travelling in busses is much, much worse. Drivers are easily distracted, preen their giant moustaches and eyebrows in rear view mirrors and carry on animated conversations on their mobiles. I remember one group of travellers in Nepal who were so frightened by their driver's behaviour they commandeered the bus and drove it themselves. Our advice? When travelling between cities, fly or take the train. More expensive, but what price comfort and safety?
5. Merzouga, Morocco
The main street of Merzouga. Photo courtesy of Trelawn
Merzouga is a small town near the giant sand dune of Erg Chebbi, right on the edge of the Moroccan part of the Saharan Desert. Westerners come here for one reason and one reason only: to arrange a camel safari into the sand dunes and get a taste of what they hope is real Berber life. Consisting of approximately 5 streets, a few meagre buildings and over 50 outlying lodges, called auberges, the tourist industry here is very aggressive, or in the words of Wikitravel "smooth and deceivingly vicious". Touts mark you as their own as soon as you arrive in town, then use every known trick in the book and a few more to get you to commit to their auberge/safari – which you must do within a short amount of time if you are to have a bed for the night. Here we once heard a young Canadian tourist called a "Nazi Jew" for questioning a tout's prices and were personally threatened with violence for chatting to a group of tourists that we recognised from another town – presumably because we might have convinced them to come to our auberge instead of the one they were being led to. Once you are in your auberge you are perfectly safe and free from assault, but choosing one and getting there can be an absolutely harrowing experience. Worth the night you spend out on the dunes? Not really. Our advice is, if you want a Saharan experience, approach the dunes from another region altogether, say Egypt. Or research and book your auberge before arriving, thus avoiding Merzouga completely. Whatever you decide, boycott Merzouga until the locals have learned some manners.
6. Guwahati, India
Guwahati in all its glory. Photo courtesy of Storkk
The largest city in eastern India and gateway to the fabulous and exotic northeast region of Assam and Nagaland, Guwahati is one of the fastest growing cities in the world but exists in one of the most neglected states in India. The results are palpable if you are a foreigner trying to get around or make your way further into Assam. The hotels are of the poorest standard we've ever seen, yet their pries for foreigners range into the hundreds of dollars per night. According to Wikipedia two 5 star hotels are currently being built, although it appears that these will be of local rather than international standard – read foam mattresses and twenty nine channels of Bollywood on TV, for which you will probably be asked to pay over US$300 a night. Getting around the region by car is a nightmare too (Wikipedia states that "roads in and out of Guwahati suffer from insufficient right of way, illegal construction methods, and improper planning and design" (which in our opinion is an understatement). The city is plagued by terrorist attacks, carried out by local insurgents seeking independence from mother India. Given this situation, its no wonder that the central Indian government is not interested in sinking vast amounts of capital into a region that may at any time declare itself a separate country. Not very helpful for the western traveller however, and getting a permit into the tribal regions to the east is almost impossible, especially in advance, as the political situation is volatile and changes from day to day. Add congestion, pollution, a non-existent tourism infrastructure and unhelpful locals to the mix, making Guwahatti an incredibly unrewarding experience and also a very frustrating one. Our advice: an enticing region but one probably best left to local tourists for the time being. See you in 100 years time Guwahatti!
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