Friday, August 31, 2007

Egypt: Tourist Destinations the Latest Places to Join Hot-Spot Roll-Out

The tourist destinations of Sharm el-Sheikh and Luxor are the latest cities to get on board Egypt's fast-moving roll-out of Wi-Fi hot-spots.

Although prices in these places will be expensive, they are considerably cheaper than the current alternatives in local tourist hotels.

Under a USAID-sponsored project, "While in Egypt Stay Connected," tourist destinations in Sharm el-Sheikh and Luxor are serving as pilot cities for Wi-Fi deployments. In each city, sixteen Wi-Fi access points swathe tourist areas. Visitors purchase prepaid Internet access cards for about US$6.74 an hour.

Although hotels in Cairo have been offering Wi-Fi, there has until this point been little in the other two tourist destinations. Cairo's Marriott with its relaxing courtyard garden offers a 24 hour access card that lasts three months for US$30 and it is always full of people using laptops. What they might lose one way, they gain by users paying for their premium price drinks.

In Luxor, Wi-Fi covers a 5 km stretch of the Nile Corniche, connecting users in outdoor cafes and on Nile cruise ships at 256K. Connectivity even extends into Luxor and Karnak temples, allowing the novelty of instant messaging while seated in a 4000-year-old monument. Also benefiting from Wi-Fi coverage, connected users can logon from pedestrian areas in Sharm el-Sheikh's Naama Bay, or even a chaise longue along a beach promenade.

Before this roll-out, there were only a very small number of hot-spots. The cost of rolling out the hot-spots has been paid for by different equipment vendors: SR Telecom in Luxor and Redline and Colubris in Sharm el-Sheikh. The Luxor hot-spots are run by Telecom Egypt's ISP TE Data and the Sharm el-Sheik operation by local ISP Egynet. Both ISPs paid the equipment installation costs.

There is no revenue split with site owners because the networks are outdoors and the ISPs have done all the aerial site leases themselves. However, they are selling the pre-paid scratch cards to vendors at a small discount.

Connected tourists, who travel with laptops or other Wi-Fi devices, have greater income and are bigger spenders when on holiday. According to research carried out by the project, 15% of UK tourists take a laptop and 30% of Germans.

This USAID project aims to boost tourism revenues by establishing Egypt as a "connected' destination, with Wi-Fi and 3G Internet attracting visitors who prefer to visit a country with fast and easy data access. It is part of a wider initiative to persuade local hotel owners to accept credit cards and put in place online booking procedures.

Hot-spots in these destinations will add to Egypt's already burgeoning hot-spot culture. In Cairo there are a great deal of places offering free access including coffee shops, Macdonalds and a local chain called Cilantro. In each of these places, you will see a mix of tourists, expats and locals working away on their laptops.

Interestingly, these include people using Skype with headsets as PC to PC calls are legal in Egypt. One local visitor reported that the bandwidth was of sufficiently high quality that he was able to use the SIP client on his Nokia N80 to call home for virtually nothing.

Further south, with the exception of South Africa, public hot-spots are still a relatively exotic offering. However, both pay-for and free hot-spots in hotels can be found increasingly widely in a range of countries. Perhaps public hot-spots will become the next wave of growth in the coming year.


Monday, August 27, 2007

Was Mumtaz really buried at Taj Mahal?

Even as the world excitedly talks about the recently discovered mummy believed to be of Egyptian queen Hatshepsut, in India the mystery surrounding Mumtaz Mahal's burial at the Taj Mahal has deepened with several Mughal historians asserting that her body was not mummified.

Mughal emperor Shah Jahan built the 17th century Taj Mahal in memory of his beloved wife Mumtaz Mahal who died delivering their 14th child in Burhanpur, a town in Maharashtra.

The queen's body was buried in Burhanpur itself but was believed to have been recovered for transportation to Agra where it was reburied in a grave in the Taj Mahal complex for at least 12 years to be again shifted to her final resting place in the basement of the monument.

As there is no detailed description or reference to any kind of treatment given to the body to keep it in recognisable shape for more than 12 years, two conjectures are now being offered.

One, the body remained buried in Burhanpur, only some symbolic relics were brought to Agra in a lead coffin. Two, the body decomposed and virtually vanished, leaving behind some bones and perhaps the bare skelton.

"Obviously the coffin was not opened, otherwise we would have had some account of what remained inside it," says R. Nath, a Mughal historian. "In any case, how does it matter what state the body was in."

Afzal Khan, a historian of Aligarh Muslim University, says, "It is possible that the body might have been thoroughly decomposed, given the long duration for which it was kept outside and the time taken to transport it from the south to Agra. Since there are no accounts of how the whole process was carried out, one can only guess what could have happened to the body of Mumtaz."

A senior guide, 75-year-old SK Tripathi, says the body is believed to have been placed in a lead and copper coffin, which was air tight and sealed. It was kept at the Taj Mahal premises for a little over 12 years and was shifted as soon as more than half the edifice was constructed. The real graves of the two are in the basement, totally sealed.

"No one has gone there to see what state they are in now," he adds.

Archaeological Survey of India officials in Agra say they have no idea when was the last time someone had a close look at the basement and the foundation of the Taj Mahal, let alone the original graves of Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal.

"We have no records of any such inspection," says one official.

The one little passage near the stair case leading to the main marble edifice was sealed more than a decade ago with a brick wall, which means there is now no way one can enter the sealed chambers below the Taj.

RC Sharma, a historian, says the body of Mumtaz Mahal was buried in Burhanpur. "What came to Agra must have been just bones in a coffin which was again reburied in the Taj complex."

From historical records available this was a unique feat. "Mumtaz was buried thrice at three different places," says Amit Mukherjea, who heads the history department of St John's College in Agra.

Most people do not know that the foundation of the Taj was actually laid in Burhanpur but because of the problems and costs involved in the transportation of marble from Rajasthan, Agra became the final choice.

"It was in Ahu Khana in Burhanpur on the bank of the Tapti river that her body was buried to be later transferred to Agra," according to KK Mohammed of ASI.

But the question relating to the technique of embalming and preservation remains unanswered.

Afsar Ahmed, a media researcher deeply interested in Mughal history, told IANS, You might find it difficult to believe but there's a possibility that the body of Mumtaz Mahal is still preserved in the Taj Mahal in the same condition as she was when she passed away. Mumtaz Mahal was buried six months after she passed away in June 1631. She was, however, buried in Jan 1632."

The question that arises now is: how was her body preserved? Ahmed quotes a report prepared by Armanul Haq, the curator in the Museum of History and Medicine in the Jamia Hamdard University, who claims that Mumtaz Mahal's body was preserved according to Unani techniques.

The process was used because cutting a body after death is prohibited in Islam. That is why when Mumtaz Mahal passed away in 1631 in Burhanpur, her body was kept in a tin box filled with such herbs as would stop the decay of flesh.

"The airtight tin box was filled with herbs like the ash of Babul tree (acacia), Mehendi (henna), Kapoor crystals (camphor), sandalwood ash, and then again camphor applied in layers upon layers. These herbs would have created a vacuum inside the box and prevented the decay of the body. A point to be noted here is that none of these herbs were put inside Mumtaz Mahal's body," says Ahmed.

If her body is still preserved and in fine shape, shall we call it the success of the Indian technique of mummification?


Sunday, August 26, 2007

China world's top tourist destination

On my first visit to China as a tourist more than 40 years ago, I was followed around the streets of Shanghai by a mob of curious, Mao-suited Chinese, today I don't even rate a glance.

I'm just one of millions of western tourists who are finding China a fascinating destination. Within a decade China is expected to top the list of the world's most popular destinations.

Of course, China has changed beyond recognition. It has pulled down its bamboo curtain and embraced a new hybrid of capitalist communism.

The Great Wall of China, once built to keep people out of China, is now being used as a tool to bring tourists into China.

Today, Beijing, Xian, the Yangtze River, Guilin, the Li River, Yangshuo and Shanghai are among the main tourist places of interest.

China is not a place yet for the independent traveller: English is not widely spoken and internal travel isn't easy. Far better to take a package tour with an accompanying escort who can take care of the detail.

Wendy Wu Tours is an experienced China hand and has a 17-day package called the Wonders of China which takes in the highlights. It is an ideal way to see the main points of interest in four-star comfort.

We enjoyed a cross-section of China – from big cities to farmland and small villages; to Yangtze river life; to a home visit in Beijing and a close look at a farmer's country farmhouse.

Our tour began in Beijing, a city in the midst of a big makeover to prepare for the 2008 Olympic Games. The Chinese see the Olympic Games as a coming out party and are sparing nothing to get the city ready.

A city of modern skyscraper buildings and freeways, it is, in that respect, much like many other cities – except for the smog.

It can give you a wrong impression of China. A third of the city's three million cars will be kept off the roads during the Games and many public servants given holidays to try to reduce the smog.

City fathers are also planting gardens and trees to try to soak up the smog.

Police and taxi drivers are being given English language lessons and residents are being asked to take classes in how to behave at sports events. Spitting is banned and thousands of extra, portable toilets are being installed in Beijing streets.

Beijing's icons include the massive Tiananmen Square, with Mao Zedong's mausoleum (closed at present for restoration), the Forbidden City, Temple of Heaven and the Great Wall.

Be prepared for lots of walking around these icons. Be ready, too, for crowds, although because of the scale of these places one never really felt crushed.

And beware of hawkers wanting to sell you anything from hats to souvenir books.

(Practise saying something that sounds like: "booyerchercher". It means, I'm assured: "I don't want it, thank you.")

You'll make an early morning visit to the Great Wall at Juyongguan.

Wendy Wu, sensibly, got us there before the crowds. Walk on the wall – at least for a short distance. To the right (west) of the entrance, up the hill, it is steep. The steps, worn by millions of feet, are uneven. To the left it is flatter but less spectacular.

In the evenings enjoy a spectacular acrobatic show and, if there is time, take in on another night, The Legend of Kung Fu, a wonderful, spiritual and energetic ballet tracing the life of a boy who becomes a warrior monk.

A short flight away is Xian, start of the Silk Road and home of the Terracotta Warriors, the bigger-than-lifesize army created to protect China's first emperor, Qin.

Described as the eighth wonder of the world, it was discovered as recently as 1974 by a local farmer digging a well. (You can shake his hand in the souvenir shop where he sits day after day autographing the souvenir book.)

The diggings, in three pits, cover 20ha and are under a dome roof. Spend most time in pit No 1 which is the most spectacular.

The four-night Yangtze River cruise gave us a chance to see the Three Gorges Dam, one of the world's biggest projects, and watch life on the river which carries 80 percent of China's waterborne traffic and whose catchment area is home to more than a third of China's 1.3 billion population.

When the dam is finished in 2009 the water-level will rise another 25 metres and flood many cities and villages. A million people are being displaced and relocated in newly-built towns.

You'll be taken on a fascinating side trip up a narrow river in a peapod-shaped boat sculled and dragged by local boatmen just as they have done over centuries against the rapids and swift flow of the river.

A highlight of the tour was undoubtedly a three-hour cruise on the Li River from Guilin to Yangshuo, past the karsts, ragged mountains that look like giant green molehills and remind one of classic Chinese landscape painting.

You'll see a slice of river life, including buffaloes lazily ploughing rice fields , and fishermen who use trained cormorants to fish from their flat bamboo craft.

Yangshuo is a delightful small town. Good for shopping in the marketplace. And don't miss an evening performance of a sound-and-light show featuring a cast of 600 local farmers and fishermen on a set that incorporates the river and a backdrop of the mountains.

Truly spectacular, it has been directed by Zhang Yimou who will direct the Opening and Closing ceremonies of the Beijing Olympic Games.

Shanghai today is a modern city. Not a Mao suit in sight. If it is said of Xian that one sees there 1,000 years of Chinese history and in Beijing, 100 years then in Shanghai one sees the past 10 years of China's amazing development. The elegant, European architecture of the old riverside thoroughfare, the Bund, is still there.

But across the river, where rice fields existed just 15 years ago, are skyscrapers to match those anywhere. At night they are lit to show off a spectacle of colour.

As if to exemplify the speed with which China is charging into the 21st century, Shanghai has a rail link between its CBD and new international airport, 30km away. It covers the distance in less than eight minutes at speeds up to 431km an hour. We took it just for fun – at about $15 ($NZ16.92) return.

It's a far cry from the Shanghai I remembered of 40 years ago when the fastest vehicle in sight was a bicycle.


China specialist Wendy Wu Tours has a number of fully-escorted tours of China ranging from 10 days to 29 days. The 17-day Wonders of China tour runs from March to November and prices start at $3,980 twin share, including international air fares, national escort and local guides, all meals and visa.

Cathay Pacific Airways has China Trader return air fares from major Australian cities starting at $1,075 plus taxes to Beijing or Shanghai.