Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Holidays in Hell

The desirable holiday destination of Sumqayit, yesterday.

Holidays in Hell

Ten Must-See Destinations for Environmental Masochists

Location: western Siberia, Russia
Population: 109,000
Attractions: Entry to Seversk, once known as "Tomsk 7", is severely restricted; until 1992 it was not even marked on maps. Seversk is a company town - virtually the sole employer is the Siberian Group of Chemical Enterprises. The city boasts three seperate nuclear reactors, and multiple plants for the processing, enrichment and weaponising of uranium and plutonium. In 1993 Seversk was bathed in lethal fall-out, when a vat of radioactive phosphate exploded in one of the factories.
Things to Do: Visitors can swim in the colourful Tom River - said to be the world's most radioactive watercourse (with a toxicity equivalent to the outfall from 10,000 nuclear reactors). Twitchers will enjoy the many unique bird species, a product of genetic mutation caused by radiation poisoning. Honeymooners should note that Seversk is nicknamed 'Infertility City' by local wags, as anyone who lives there permanently can expect to become infertile after two years.
Quote: 'At least the moose are easy to shoot - because they are brain damaged.' Adam Nurilyov. Local hunter.
Hell Rating: 8/10

City of 10th Ramadan
Location. Suburbs of Cairo, Egypt
Population: 40,000
Attractions: the main employer in this windblown industrial suburb of reclaimed desert is the asbestos company Aura-Egypt. Production of blue and white asbestos has been in full swing since 1983. In the early years of the industry, the dangers of asbestos were "unknown"; local mothers would knit their children pullovers - using raw asbestos fibre.
Things to Do: favourite pastimes of the locals include coughing, spitting, flobbing, hawking, and gobbing up blooded sputum. Apart from these activities, most leisure-time in 10th Ramadan is spent contracting mesothelioma. This gruesome cancer is probably more common, per capita, in 10th Ramadam City than anywhere else on the globe: early symptoms include chest pain, muscle spasms, and shortness of breath; they rapidly advance to extreme vomiting, heart failure, and death.
Quote: Shabaan Ahmed, a local worker, says of his career as an asbestos worker in 10th Ramadan City: 'After a while my friend Muhsen Afifi died: although he was an accountant and far from the fatal dust. Then in 1995 Abdel-Mounem Halloul died of enteric cancer, and in 1997 Ahmed Abul-Einein died of stomach cancer. I don't feel so good myself.'
Hell Rating: 7/10

Location: southwest Poland
Population: 317,000
Attractions: this regional capital of Silesian Poland has been a centre of heavy industry for decades. It is surrounded by mines, steel foundries, coking plants, chemical refineries and decaying ironworks. Nearly all of these run on the local brown coal, or lignite, which produces a smutty and very pungent smoke. This copious smog sometimes obscures the sun throughout the town: a so-called "brown-out".
Things to do: bring the family. A survey of pregnant women showed that more than 50% of placentas were damaged by exposure to pollutants. Babies are regularly born with meningitis, pneumonia, asthma and rickets.
If you fancy an excursion try the vast saltmines of the region. You are sure to bump into some locals: when the pollution is especially bad Katowicans are forced into the enormous mines themselves, where they sleep for weeks on end. Lovers of authentic regional cuisine should look out for the unusual salads - municipal authorities have banned all consumption of green vegetables grown in the district, as they are so contaminated with toxins.
Quote: local journalist Julius Seifer: ''During communist times, when we complained about the pollution, they told us we were unpatriotic. They said the west wanted to bring us to our knees: through ecology.''
Hell Rating: 6/10

Location: Shanxi province, China
Population: 3.4million
Attractions: Linfen was voted "the most polluted city on the planet" in a 2007 report from the World Bank. It is the centre of Shanxi's vast automobile industry. Intriguing local pollutants include fly ash, sulfur dioxide, and lead dust.
Things to Do: Listen up. Where most cities have a dawn chorus, Linfen boasts an "evening chorus" of hacking coughs, as the city's smog intensifies towards dusk. The children of Linfen are prone to lead poisoning, which induces brain damage; almost anyone who samples the tasty local water risks arsenicosis. This causes skin lesions, vascular problems, hypertension, and many kinds of cancer. The perfect souvenir of any trip to this attractive city is a "Linfen tan" - a vicious ailment, caused by metallic pollution, properly known as blackfoot disease. Victims suffer bubbling and puckering of the hands and feet; eventually the skin turns crispy black; in extreme cases the appendage falls off.
Quote: "In the past, I dug 60 meters to get clean drinking water," says Li Yonggang, who lives in a stricken village in nearby Yongji County. "But now my well is 180 meters deep, and the water still looks like sewage."
Hell rating: 7/10

Mexico City
Location: Mexico
Population: 25m
Attractions: arguably the most populous city on earth, Mexico City is also famous for its rapid and uplanned urbanisation, the intense use of cars, endless miles of unregulated factories, and the unrestrained burning of fossil fuels. The city also boasts a unique topography - it sits on a sunbaked plateau surrounded by mountains, which means smog and smoke can never escape. This creates a permanent filthy haze that hovers over the entire megalopolis.
Things to Do: enjoy a refreshing shower of shit. As rainclouds pass over the urban areas, they are trapped by that bowl of mountains. Consequently the clouds suck up water from wherever they can - e.g. the vast sewage farms that surround the city. The clouds then backtrack, and release their burden of tainted vapour on the city. This falls as a light brown drizzle - of human excrement. Climatologists actually have a name for it: "fecal rain". Hotels can usually provide umbrellas.
Quote: "Simply living in Mexico City is equivalent to smoking twenty cigarettes a day". World Health Organisation report.
Hell Rating: 8/10

Location: Zambia
Population: 1.1m
Attractions: Lead smelting,
Things to do: build a surprisingly dynamic career. This second largest city in this southern African country was home to one of the world's largest lead smelters until 1987. As a result, the entire city is contaminated with heavy metal, which causes brain and nerve damage in children and fetuses. This leads to massive educational problems throughout the town: for every 10 micrograms of lead in a decilitre of blood, your IQ drops by an equivalent 10 points. On the good side this means you can get a really top job, if you decide to settle down here, as the competition ain't up to much.
Quote: "I thought Joburg was the worst city in Africa, and then I went to Kabwe." Anonymous Medicins sans frontieres aid worker, 2005.
Hell rating: 8/10

Location: Azerbaijan
Population: 275,000
Attractions: this town on the Caspian coast features the world's highest concentration of disused oil and chemical works. So spectacular are the decaying, Soviet-era hulks, they have been used in several Hollywood movies as a stand-in for apocalyptic dereliction on a future earth.
Things to do: one of the main pastimes in Sumqayit is dying young. Life expectancy in males is no higher than 60, with some experts putting it lower than 50. It's still falling. Local Azeris suffer cancer rates at least 50 percent higher than their countrymen, and their children suffer from a lively number of genetic defects ranging from mental retardation to bone disease.
Quote: "When the town was working, as much as 120,000 tons of harmful emissions were released on an annual basis," says local doctor Andrei Shalyaban. "There are also huge untreated dumps of industrial sludge, and the rivers are yellow and purple. It's not a nice place."
Hell Rating: 8/10

Location: northern Russia
Population: 100,000
Attractions: Norilsk is known for the smelting of nickel, which occurs throughout the town in vast plants. The smelting is directly responsible for pollution of a flamboyant complexity: the World Health Organisation's list of local air pollutants includes strontium 90, and caesium 137, as well as nickel, copper, cobalt, lead, palladium and selenium. Meanwhile the air and water is full of toxic gases such as nitrogen, phenol, carbon monoxide and hydrogen sulfide. Then there are the disused nuclear subs rusting in the freezing ocean a few miles offshore: they are thought to be leaking radiation.
Things to do: count yourself lucky you're here - Norilsk is world famous! By some estimates, fully 1 percent of the entire annual global emissions of sulfur dioxide come from this one smallish town on the Arctic Ocean. How good is that? But if the stats fail to grab you, then you can marvel at the celebrated "soil mines": metallurgic pollution in and around Norilsk is so severe it is now economically feasible to mine ordinary ground for its dangerous deposits of platinum and other heavy metals.
Quote: Yev Baidovitch, a local writer: "No one would live here if they, or their parents, hadn't been sent here."
Hell rating: 9/10

Location: Rajpur, India
Population: 2.6m
Attractions: Sukinda is a major centre for the Tata Steel company. The region is also home to a dozen of the world's largest lead and chromite mines.
Things to Do: spot the tumours. Those mines flush endless hexavalent chromium compounds into the Brahmani river, where they join 30 million tons of waste rock. The reliance of Rajupurites on this single watersource in turn leads to some of the most virulent and aggressive cancers ever recorded by medicine, including forms of intestinal cancer where the tumour rips overnight through the stomach wall, causing the sufferer to bleed to death through the rectum. Tuberculosis and asthma are common ailments. Infertility, birth defects, and stillbirths are endemic.
The Orissa Health Association has reported that an astonishing 85% of deaths in the mining areas and 86% of deaths in the nearby industrial villages occur expressly as a result of chromite-related diseases. The survey also claims that a quarter of all inhabitants are, at any one time, suffering from pollution-induced afflictions.
Quote: "These allegations about our town are clearly groundless". Rajpur State Official.
Hell rating. 7/10

Location: Uzbekistan, central Asia
Population: 30,000
Attractions: the endless golden beaches go on and on. And on and on and on and on. And on. Just a few decades back Moynaq was a happy and prosperous fishing town on the Aral Sea, one of the largest inland bodies of water in the world. But then the communists diverted the course of two major rivers, which fed the Aral, to irrigate more land for cotton growing. The ecosystem promptly collapsed, and the Aral literally dried up: the seashore retreated by a hundred miles: leaving behind a sterile desert. And a lot of stranded ships.
Things to do: go see the non existent wildlife. Of 173 animal species which flourished here 50 years ago, barely 30 survive today. Fisherman who fancy a challenge should bring their rods. And maybe a telescope: the local river systems used to boast 25 species of fish, now only two remain.
Weather-watchers will also have fun here: because of the disappearance of the forests, which used to regulate the microclimate, the region around the Aral is now exposed to atrocious Siberian winters, and summers where the temperatures can easily exceed 50C in the shade. That's if you can find any shade.
Finally, if you have your own transport, you might consider a pleasant halfday excursion to the nearby Island of Vozrozhdeniye: the site of a secret military base where chemical weapons were tested for thirty years. Spores of fatally poisonous anthrax, leached from the site, regularly turn up in the few fish that remain. Why not try the sushi? Talking of food, gourmets who like their seasoning should have a great time: on some days the entire city is shrouded in fogs of eerie grey saltdust, making any condiments unnecessary.
Quote: "The Aral Sea is a mistake of nature which has to be corrected." Stalinist scientist, 1950s.
Hell Rating: 10/10

Sunday, April 20, 2008

A Brief Interlude of Gloating

My regular reader may recall that I spent the winter in unusual circumstances: writing a weird thriller in various parts of Asia, while doing soccer-related charity stories for FIFA.

You may have wondered what happened to the thriller. Or you may not. Who cares I'm gonna tell you anyway.

The following snippet of gossip appeared in Publishers Weekly this Friday past, summing up the buzz from last week's London Book Fair, the premier global bookfest of the spring.

"Several titles out on submission in the U.S. may get a boost from foreign sales at the fair... Jay Mandel at William Morris New York is due to go out shortly with Tom Knox’s The Genesis Secret, a thriller that weaves together the story of an archaelogical dig in the deserts of eastern Turkey with that of a series of random murders occurring in England. Harper bought U.K. rights to two books, and there are offers in Greece and Finland and multiple offers in Germany, Italy, France and Brazil."

Modesty precludes me from commenting further. YAYYYYYYYY!!!!!!!!!

Thursday, April 03, 2008


Wladislaw Reymant. Literature, 1924.

How To Win A Nobel Prize

Be A Man

Few Nobels go to women. Only two women, for instance, have won the Physics gong, and no woman has ever won the Economics prize. The Mrs Lucas who shared Prof Robert Lucas’s Economics prize-money in 1995 only got that because she stipulated she wanted half of everything in their divorce.

Be Clever

Going to the right highbrow educational institution helps. The Bronx Science High School in New York has alone produced five ‘Nobellians’. Chicago Uni boasts 58 Laureates on its roster; Harvard 35. And tiny Trinity College Cambridge has won more Nobels than all of Japan.

Be Nominated

Nomination-papers for the six Nobel prize categories (Peace, Literature, Medicine, Economics, Physics, Chemistry) are sent out in November each year by the Swedish Academy. The papers go to thousands of universities, academics, and previous prize-winners all around the world. So all you’ve got to do is befriend a Nobel Laureate. Try taking out Mrs Betty Williams of Belfast (Peace, 1975) for a Babycham.

Be Recommended

Once the nomination papers are in (by February 1st) the Swedish Academy forwards them to various committees. These groups of Nordic brainiacs then spend the summer assessing the relative merits of the nominees. If lasting achievement is anything to go by, the easiest categories to win seem to be Peace and Literature. Henry Kissinger won the Peace prize in 1973 for stopping the war in Vietnam. The war then started again. Anonymous non-entities who’ve won the Literature prize include Shmuel Agnon (1966), Bjornsterne Bjornson (1903), and Selma Lagerloef (1907).

Be Happy

Winning a Nobel is well worth the effort. Dynamite-inventor Alfred Nobel, who started the whole shebang in 1901, left 33 million Swedish crowns in his will to fund the awards. With inflation this money has swollen, such that every Nobel prize-winner now gets 7.9m crowns - nearly a million quid. And you wondered why John Hume (Peace, 1998) was looking so chirpy. Moreover, when you turn up at Stockholm’s Concert Hall on December 10 to collect your cheque, you also get a solid gold medal - none of your plated Olympics rubbish. So get to it.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Poem for the Day

Just found this great poem, in the Paris Review.

S. X. Rosenstock's Rimininny! (1996):

They read no more that day....

If you can't fuck me while I read, fuck off.
You're not the best of what's been thought or said,
Not yet. But youth, with genius, is enough.

Menage a trois
is greatness, not rebuff,
If you gain art from what art's represented.
If you can't fuck me while I read, fuck off.

I want you, and I want a paragraph
Of lengthy James; he does go on. My love
Can you? I shouldn't praise his length? Enough

Of him? The body of work's living proof
We're all rare forms, and living ... in the dead.
If you can't A Little Tour in France me while I read,
fuck off.

I signal lusts by title, not handkerchief,
Since I'm the sex of all that I have read;
Sometimes I write this sex. Kiss me enough,

And well enough, that I may hear the snub
That reading's not a sexual preference.
If you can't fuck me while I read, fuck off,
Or rave how I'm a work of art enough.