Paris catacombs vandalized, closed for repair

Paris’ catacombs, underground passages full of neatly stacked human bones, have been temporarily closed to the public after being vandalized.

A spokeswoman for the Paris prosecutor’s office would not go into detail on the extent of the vandalism, which took place over the weekend, but said that the site would be closed because in its current state it was hazardous to visitors. According to the AP, a photo in a Paris newspaper showed “bones and skulls scattered along the walking paths”. There was no word on when the catacombs would reopen, but as they are a major tourist attraction visited by over 250,000 people each year, it seems that the city would do its best to clean the mess and repair any damage as soon as possible.

The catacombs open to the public are just one part of an 186-mile network underneath the city. The bones of over 6 million Parisians are contained here, having been moved to the site in the 18th and 19th centuries after the city’s cemeteries became overcrowded and contributed to the spread of disease.

Dim Sum Dialogues: The MTR

I love public transport. For me, it’s one of the factors that define whether a city is good or great…and after living in Los Angeles for 4 years, I’ve been overdue to live in a city with great transportation. I’ve navigated the underground systems of most of the major U.S cities, as well as London, Barcelona, & Paris – but none of them are as efficient or well-maintained as Hong Kong’s MTR.

The initial proposal for the MTR system began with four rail lines in 1967, with the first line opening in 1979. It has since expanded to 82 stations served by 10 rapid transit lines and 68 stations on 11 light rail lines – carrying an estimated 2.2 million passengers every day.

Each MTR station has multiple street exits that are easily marked alphabetically, with accompanying numbers for exits that are near each other. For instance, if two exits share the same street or provide two stairwells to opposite sides of a street, they are paired as A1 & A2. This is extremely useful when trying to arrange a meeting point with someone in the city…simply name the station and the exit and there’s no confusion on where to be.

Since 2000, the MTR corporation has begun to offer retail space for small shops in most stations. So it’s typical to find stores like 7-11, Circle K, and Mrs. Fields Cookies in every major station, with larger stations offering full fledged clothing stores or health and beauty shops. Small MTR signs encourage people in transit to “pause, take a short break” in the shops – something that might be inconceivable amidst the bustling Monday-Friday rush hour from 6-7pm.

Glass walls with sliding doors separate the platforms from the railways, with overhead signs that display when the next train will arrive. The trains are fairly standard, with each car seamlessly linked to the next – allowing passengers to move freely to less crowded cars.

PSP’s and iPhone’s are the standard gadgets found in the hands of at least 60% of the passengers on any given day. Verbal announcements are made before every stop in Cantonese, Mandarin and English, respectively – and regularly remind passengers to refrain from eating or drinking in the trains or in the stations (which, to my surprise is strictly obeyed). LED signs above each door map the train’s progress on the line, and indicate which side of the train the doors will open on at the next stop. It’s smooth, fast, and cheap – the most you’ll end up paying from one end of the city to the other is the equivalent of $2 USD.

After about a month of riding the MTR, two facts dawned on me: first, there are no bathrooms to be found in any of the stations. This is probably the biggest drawback of the system – but with abundance of McDonald’s on Hong Kong’s streets, finding a nearby toilet is never really a problem. The second revelation was that some of the biggest shopping destinations are conveniently situated directly on top of a few of the major MTR stations.

After a couple of online searches, I learned that the MTR corporation is also one of the largest property developers in Hong Kong – collecting major profit from constructing shopping centers, office spaces, and residential buildings on the land above their stations…a perfect example of the sharp business sense that is prevalent in Hong Kong.

So if you’re headed to Hong Kong – rest assured that you’ll be able to find your way around very easily. If you’re planning on staying for more than a week, or will return frequently for business, don’t forget to pick up an Octopus card – the RFID system that allows you to load money onto a smart card for payment in supermarkets, fast-food restaurants, convenience stores, at parking meters and even vending machines. It’s genius, and just one more reason why I find the MTR to be one of the best rapid transit systems in the world.

The rest of the week I’ll be covering Hong Kong’s various modes of transport. Stay tuned to find out what makes the taxis here unique, and which public transport you can throw a party on…

In the Corner of the World – Cold and glowing vs. hot and bubbly

Over the next few weeks here at Gadling, we’ll be bringing you updates from our recent travels across New Zealand – in the process, we hope to offer a range of perspectives about what visiting this truly unique and fascinating country is all about. You can read previous entries HERE.

You’re standing on the edge of a ledge. Covered head-to-toe in a neoprene wetsuit, purple short-shorts and giant white rubber galoshes, and holding a large inner tube. You’re contemplating a jump into the frigid waters that slosh noisily just below. It’s pitch black, but your headlamp punches temporary holes in the emptiness, providing glimpses of other victims shouting and flailing wildly beneath you. A man taps you on the arm and pushes you forward – you hesitate, but there’s nothing to do but turn around and jump, plummeting ass-first towards the numbingly cold water beneath you, awaiting the inevitability of a painful impact.

This certainly wasn’t how I had pictured my day unfolding when it began. We were headed 2 hours south from Auckland, driving towards Waitomo, a village that is home to one of the largest complexes of underground caves in New Zealand. Caving is highly popular attraction in New Zealand, and the underground spaces like those found at Waitomo boast almost 400,000 visitors each year.

We had also heard about a peculiar Waitomo Cave phenomenon known as “Glowworms” – a unique species of bioluminescent insect that emits an eerie light in order to attract its prey. Glowing insects and cave exploring? Our interest was piqued – we wanted to see these strange creatures up and close and personal for ourselves. But how exactly does one go from a casual curiosity in glowing cave bugs to standing shivering, wearing a wetsuit in a pitch black cave? And how did we plan to warm ourselves up afterwards? Keep clicking below to see what happened.
Visitors to Waitomo caves have a huge range of options for viewing these amazing natural wonders and the strange wildlife like glow worms that live within them. Trips to Waitomo Caves range from more casual walking tours along guided underground paths to full-on spelunking and cave rafting expeditions.

Though a leisurely cave walk sounded fun, this was New Zealand after all – frequently cited as the home of “extreme sports.” We wanted a more “hands-on” experience so we opted for an underwater tubing trip which would take us on water voyage through the inner workings of the one of the caves. After suiting up in what is perhaps the stupidest outfit I’ve ever worn in my entire life (pictured left), we were ready to enter the caves.

As we entered the first narrow tunnel, icy cold water up to our waists, I began to wonder what I had gotten my claustrophobic self into – but the scenery quickly changed. After jumping through a few small waterfall pools, the ceiling soon opened upwards, revealing a massive underground cavern big enough to hold a cathedral and a meandering underground stream. Above us lay a miniature Milky Way of twinkling lights – a constellation of glowworm insects silently advertising for victims. We hopped aboard our inner tubes and floated lazily down the cave’s river as we gazed up at the artificial light show performance above us. Still under the hypnotic visual spell of such a strange sight, we soon emerged back into the midday light, none the worse for the wear but soaking wet and exhilarated by our recent adventure.

After all the freezing water from the morning’s caving activities, it was time to warm up and relax. We headed 150 kilometers east towards Rotorua, a city that lies on the edge of one of New Zealand’s more active geothermal hotspots. In addition to geysers and mud pools, Rotorua is also an outdoor activities destination offering the chance to mountain bike, raft, fish and swim. But a morning of cave-exploring had just about done us in at this point – we were ready to just hang out. We stopped by the Polynesian Spa to take a soak in their naturally heated thermal waters, renting a private pool with a view of Lake Rotorua for 30 minutes.

As we immersed ourselves in the warm embrace of the nearly 100 degree water, the starry night sky above us punctuated by the Southern Cross, we had a chance to think back. Our day had taken us across two huge extremes in temperature. From a morning sloshing through knee-deep freezing water, looking up at ghostly glowworms to a heated hot-spring pool and starlit New Zealand sky. Going from cold to hot – it was just the kind of extreme transition we’d come to find down in New Zealand, the corner of the world.

Getting around London is going to become even more expensive

You might have thought that London was already expensive, but next year you can look forward to budgeting even more money when visiting the English capital. Mayor Boris Johnson plans to raise London Underground train and bus fares next year by an average of 6% above the inflation rate.

What exactly does that work out to? The cheapest London Underground fare which you can get by using an Oyster prepaid card will rise to £1.60, or $2.85, in January from the current price of £1.50. That doesn’t seem like a huge change, but for people — and even tourists — who use public transportation on a frequent basis, it certainly feels like it.

The current London Underground cash fare for a ticket — £4 — is reported to be the highest in the world for a subway system; apparently the city really wants to keep its ranking.

Tunnels under Chinatown: racist or reality?

There’s nothing more enthralling than discovering hidden tunnels and secret passageways, especially if you’re an archeologist. Likewise for tourists, sometimes the most exciting part of a city is what lies beneath it.

And that’s why everyone is so excited in the California town of Fresno where a team of archeologists are currently hot on the trail of an urban legend: underground Chinatown. It has been rumored for years that an extensive network of tunnels used to exist under this part of Fresno, extensive enough that residents could travel the entire length of Chinatown without ever surfacing.

After a recent discovery of a crawlspace in one of the basements, the city is finally taking the rumors seriously and has hired engineers and archeologists to probe the area with ground-penetrating radar. If this legendary network of tunnels is ever found, you can expect a very cool tourist attraction to be added to a town that is normally just a stopping point for gas on the way to the Sierras.

What I found truly fascinating from the LA Times article which covered this story, is that rumors of tunnels under any city’s Chinatown are actually quite common and, in fact, very racist. Activists claim that tunnel rumors stretch back to the late 19th century when xenophobic westerners viewed the Chinese railway workers as mysterious, secretive, and undoubtedly engaged in bizarre, vice-filled activities that were hidden from public view underneath the street of the city.