A lousy place to visit but ...

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel -

LONELY Planet co-founder Tony Wheeler has spent a life­time trav­el­ling and build­ing a pub­lish­ing em­pire that lifts the lid on places where you may want to spend your next hol­i­days. His latest book, Tony Wheeler’sBadLands:ATouris­ton­theAxis of Evil (Lonely Planet, $29.95), cov­ers the po­lar op­po­site.

Wheeler poses three ques­tions: How does a coun­try treat its cit­i­zens? Is it in­volved in ter­ror­ism? Is it a threat to other coun­tries? He waves his evil me­ter over the globe and comes up with the nine most un­wanted: Afghanistan, Al­ba­nia, Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Burma, North Korea and Saudi Ara­bia. You could cer­tainly ar­gue the toss over Al­ba­nia in its postcom­mu­nist, post-Hoxha phase, and even Libya is try­ing to be nice, but for the most part th­ese are the bad and the beastly, the out­casts of the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity.

Wheeler’s ground-level look be­yond the stereo­types is a use­ful ex­er­cise. He de­votes a lot of space to the his­toric frame­work in pur­suit of the ques­tion of how th­ese coun­tries get them­selves in such a mess.

But it’s the street-level de­tail that pro­vides the book’s mo­men­tum. Afghanistan has ap­palling roads and a Toy­ota fix­a­tion; Al­ba­nia has a con­crete bunker for ev­ery four of its peo­ple and, un­til re­cently, a pen­chant for pyra­mid-sell­ing schemes. Cuba has no soap and in­deed not much of any­thing un­less you are pack­ing green­backs. Ira­nian ladies are flir­ta­tious, while their Saudi cousins are in­vis­i­ble. When a girls’ school in Mecca caught fire, Wheeler re­minds us, the flee­ing stu­dents were forced back into the in­ferno by the mutawwa , the re­li­gious po­lice, since they were not prop­erly cov­ered.

What his ram­bles re­veal is that con­tact dis­solves even our most cher­ished prej­u­dices. Wheeler is a di­arist, but there’s a lit­tle too much of the grit of travel here: dull road jour­neys, los­ing one’s way, find­ing an in­ter­net cafe or a taxi driver who speaks English, the bore­dom of border cross­ings. Su­lay­maniyah in north­ern Iraq has a sur­pris­ingly good mu­seum, Wheeler tells us, twice in the same para­graph: a non-ob­ser­va­tion that one hopes Lonely Planet’s writ­ers are not al­lowed to get away with. He re­mains an embed­ded trav­eller, and this is re­demp­tive. De­spite an in­come that would al­low him to spend the rest of his days at an Aman­re­sort, Wheeler has cho­sen to keep it real. He trav­els with eyes wide open, never los­ing his af­fec­tion for the weird and the won­drous and the ca­pac­ity of the world to dish up sur­prises. Michael Ge­bicki

In­trepid voy­ager: Tony Wheeler

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