China’s Smog Problem Slashes Half A Decade Off Life Expectancy

We’ve shown you the dramatic images of smog-filled Beijing before, but it’s only now becoming apparent just how deadly China’s air pollution actually is.

A new study has revealed that air pollution in northern China has reduced the life expectancy of locals by about five and a half years. The findings are the result of a major study by a team of international researchers who are analyzing the health effects of China’s air pollution based on data collected locally – the first time such an investigation has been conducted.Northern China is home to some of the most smog-choked cities in the world and the northern region of the populous country is significantly worse off than its southern counterpart. Why? For decades, the region north of the Huai River was provided with free heat during the country’s icy winters. This extra coal consumption resulted in a dramatic spike in air pollution across the north. According to researchers, dangerous particles in the air are 55 percent higher in the northern region of China than they are in the south.

The air pollution isn’t just an issue for locals. Thick smog in cities like Beijing – which is popular with both leisure and business travelers – can reduce visibility and lead to flights being canceled. The suffocating air also keeps many health-conscious tourists away, leading to fears that the pollution may impact the economy.

Shop the Bakaara Market: five gifts from Somalia

It’s always hard to figure out what to get your friends when you’re on vacation. I usually just give up, and they’ve learned to accept that my gift-giving ineptitude has led to laziness. There are some trips, however, that leave you with no excuses. If you decide to head into Mogadishu, for example, you’ll be expected to bring home plenty for your friends and family.

In a place like Somalia, it can be hard to figure out where to shop, let alone what to buy. Fortunately, you can start in the capital’s shopping district (the last three words used very loosely), the Bakaara Market. This spot was made famous a little over 17 years ago when a U.S. mission went awry, and it remains incredibly unsafe for outsiders everybody. When you can’t ignore your obligations to the folks back home, though, this is probably the best place to start.

Keep in mind that the Bakaara Market is a dangerous place. Only two weeks ago, fighting broke out between the Al-Shabab and Hizbul groups, leaving five dead and more injured. According to

The movement of the market was halted for a while shortly as the gunfire spread further into different sections of the market according to the businessmen adding that the clash was ceased as officials from both sides started mediating them.

It pays to be careful.

To help you make the whole process easier, here are five gifts to get at the Bakaara Market for the person who already seems to have everything:

1. Weapons: you can get all kinds of firearms in Somalia, including AK-47s, favorites of insurgents, terrorists and combatants around the world and since its introduction in 1947. For those truly special to you, splurge for a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) launcher. You may get better deals outside the Bakaara Market, but you may be putting yourself in even more danger.

2. Counterfeit Currency: real cash isn’t good enough for you? You should be able to get some of the fake kind in this part of town. There was a big problem with counterfeiting in 2001, when U.S. dollars were the standard for trade, but this caused prices to skyrocket.

3. Memories:
there are many photo opportunities – especially since you aren’t likely to make a repeat trip. Take as many pictures as you can, but do be smart enough to remain unobtrusive. You don’t want to attract the sort of attention that could lead to a kidnapping. Wait until you get home to have the shots framed.

4. Influence: Somalia is one of the most corrupt countries in the world, so there’s a good chance you can use some cash to buy influence and favors. But, don’t expect to find any honor among thieves.

5. A Big Payout: make sure your life insurance policy is up to date before you leave – and that the company will write a check if you do something stupid that costs you your life in Mogadishu. You won’t be around to see the smiling faces of your beneficiaries, but you can meet your end knowing that a boatload of cash will be delivered to them.

[photo by ctsnow via Flickr]

Scary video shows cruise ship caught in high seas

I’ve never been on a cruise. That said, I’m sure they are quite nice – and plenty of travelers speak highly of them. But I have to admit, the video above is not doing much to convince me to get on a cruise any time soon. Apparently back in 2008, a P&O Cruises ship out of New Zealand got caught in some nasty weather about 400 miles from shore. Even this massive cruise ship, carrying over 1700 passengers, was no match for the 20 foot swells and 60 mile-per-hour winds that came with the storm.

The scary video above, recently revealed from the ship’s CCTV cameras, documents the scene as a heap of lounge furniture and a few unlucky passengers get thrown around like bathtub toys. It was likely a terrifying moment, that thankfully, most of us will never experience.

Before you cancel that sea voyage in terror, consider this: 99.9% of cruises will never have anything like this happen to them. The P&O was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.

[Via Laughing Squid]

Pittsburgh restaurant features ‘conflict cuisine’

Most American travelers will never set foot in Iran, but at least now if they make it to Pittsburgh, they can enjoy some of the country’s delicious cuisine. It’s the idea behind a new take-out restaurant called Conflict Kitchen, a new eatery that’s attempting to feature cuisine from countries the United States is in conflict with.

Conflict Kitchen might serve food, but it’s hardly your normal carry-out joint. The project, which was started by artist Jon Rubin, will regularly shift themes to feature a different “conflict country” and promote cross-cultural understanding. The first four months are devoted to a collaboration with Pittsburgh’s Iranian community. In addition to delicious food like the Kubideh Sandwich, Conflict Kitchen also plans to host events, performances and discussion surrounding this much discussed Middle Eastern country. Though there’s been no announcement on the project’s website, chances are good that other “rogue states” like North Korea, Venezuela and Afghanistan will get similar treatment.

The Conflict Kitchen project raises an interesting question. Who are we demonizing when we disagree with a country’s politics? Is it the government of that country? Or is it also the people who live there, many of whom have nothing to do with the policies we dislike? Perhaps by traveling and through projects like Conflict Kitchen we can learn to better differentiate between the two.

Situational awareness: can you detect danger before it strikes?

The global intelligence firm Stratfor has published an interesting primer on situational awareness, which is a fancy way of saying that you should pay attention.

The article is based on the obvious premise that most crimes such as kidnapping, robberies and terrorist attacks take several steps to complete, and that if someone is sufficiently aware of their surroundings they can spot the crime unfolding and react. The sharp-eyed street vendor who stopped the Times Square bomb is a perfect example.

Stratfor says that travelers and others who may be in harm’s way must get into the mindset of situational awareness. You should trust your gut instincts because often your subconscious has picked up on something your conscious mind hasn’t had time to process. People should practice being in a state of relaxed awareness similar to defensive driving. Enjoy life, but study your surroundings. Is that protest in front of the government building attracting some angry cops? Is that group of young men staring at you out of more than just curiosity? Who is standing near the ATM you want to use?

Relaxed awareness doesn’t mean being paranoid, it simply means that you should keep your eyes open and your mind active. Enjoy your vacation, but don’t leave your brain at home.

Stratfor has a free weekly newsletter with informative, level-headed articles on topics of interest to travelers and general news junkies, ranging from why we should worry about Al-Shabaab to why the fears over a radioactive “dirty bomb” are mostly hype. More articles and analysis are available through a paid subscription.

Unlike certain news organizations, Stratfor doesn’t exaggerate threats to grab readers. Their articles are meant to make you safer, not make you scared. As they say in the primer, “The world is a wonderful place, but it can also be a dangerous one.”

Words to travel by.

Photo of 2007 Bastille protests courtesy David.Monniaux via Wikimedia Commons.