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How To Read A Guidebook

Near the registration desk at Jakarta’s most famous youth hostel, Wisma Delina, I watched with growing disbelief an exchange between the owner and an angry backpacker.

“A room,” the owner said, “costs 13,500 rupiah per person.”

“No it doesn’t,” insisted the backpacker, fervently jabbing at a listing in his well-thumbed guidebook, “it says right here that it costs 12,000.”

A traveler who expects a guidebook to dictate pricing policy to the hotel industry is in for a shock. As the guidebook market has become more competitive, publishers have been going to greater lengths than ever to convince readers of their thoroughness, accuracy, and authority. But you can’t forget that a guidebook is intended to be just that – a guide.

“I’m glad I’m in the book,” the owner told me later, when the influx of shelter-seeking backpackers and tapered off. “But I have that same argument 10 times a day. People don’t seem to accept that I set my prices – the guidebook doesn’t.”

He’s right. And it’s not just prices; some travelers take a listing the guidebook to be the word of God – and then become incensed when the book’s wrong.

“A traveler standing on street corner, shifting his eyes between a guidebook and the empty spot where he expects to see something the book describes,” said Berkeley screenwriter Natalie Cooper, “has a deer in the headlights vacuousness that I think is incredibly funny.”

As a guidebook writer I know that all guides, even the great ones, have their inaccuracies. A typo can put museum on the wrong side of town. An off the beaten path site or attraction that appears in a book may be teaming with tourists a couple of months later.

A good write-up in a popular guidebook sometimes results in a price hike. And a cheap bus from A to B go out of business or be taken over by thieving greedheads by the time you ask for your ticket.

But it shouldn’t stop you in your tracks.

Rolling With The Punches
Rolling with the punches is the key to enjoying yourself on the road. Even the best guidebook can’t prepare you for everything you encounter. Even if it could it would take away much of the delight of traveling. When I’m on the road I expect surprises – in fact that’s one of the main reasons I enjoy traveling.

Sometimes the surprises books bring are even pleasant. “The super shuttle,” writes Tony Wheeler in Lonely Planet’s San Francisco City guide, “costs 11 dollars.” Well, my driver charged me $10 for the drive and if anyone thinks I argued with her and pointed in my guidebook they’re nuts.

Travelers can get the most out of their guidebook by carefully selecting a guide that suites their needs.

“One of the quickest ways to see if the book’s right for you,” said Bill Dalton, who founded the Moon handbook series in 1973, “is to look at the index and the table of contents together; play them against each other and from those to you can surmise the breadth and scope of the book.

That’s key. Before you do that though, you’ve got to decide just how much information you want. When researching in Russia, I used the excellent Blue Guide to Moscow and St. Petersburg for architectural and historical information. But for just visiting the city, I’d probably want less detailed history and culture and more general and practical information.

Watch out for books that loaded down with features you don’t need. When I went to Costa Rica for two-week vacation all I wanted was bare bones practical information on how to get to the nearest beach. But on a recent trip to Munich I looked for something to give me a broad range of information like history, culture, architecture and entertainment.

Getting at What You Need
My colleague, Tom Brosnahan, author of Lonely Planet’s Guatemala, Belize and Yucatan guidebook, stresses information accessibility.

“A good guidebook is a knowledgeable, insightful, well informed friend who’s been to the place before you and is helping you get through it,” said Brosnahan, who suggests that you read some paragraphs and see if you can get all with the author’s “voice”. Does it sound friendly” Pithy” Florid”

That’s very important. Peter Moore, who writes about travel on the Internet and speaks about it on radio, said: “choosing a guidebook to accompany you on your travels is as personal a decision as buying a new pair shoes or a new coat. If you’re not comfortable with it, you’re going to have a terrible time.”

“Wherever possible,” said Fred Hornbruch, owner of Philias Fogg’s Travel Books in Palo Alto, “I compare the information of an area I’m familiar with to see if the author covers it as accurately and completely as I want.”

That’s not a bad strategy. When I plan a trip to place or region where I’ve been before, I loiter in book shops looking at every guide they have, looking up off the beaten path places I remember. The book that has the most of them listed – and described well – usually comes home with me.

Some key points:

Prices change. Prices, if listed, are there as a guide to costs at the time of research. They’re not intended to be accurate forever, or even spot on when you by the book. What they are, though, are generally accurate representations of price ratios relative to each other. If you notice that the prices you encounter are, say, 5 to 10% higher than those quoted in the book, it’s a pretty safe bet they’ll be similarly higher elsewhere in the country. But a hotel that’s 10% cheaper than its neighbor will likely retain that price advantage.

Things change. Good places go bad, bad places go broke. As a traveler, your instincts are what you should be following; use the guidebook to hone them.

Get what you need, not what’s prettiest. Check the proportion of color photos to text to see if what are looking at is primarily a picture book with text or text complemented by pictures. Three pages of photos to one of text is a distinctly leaning to a coffee table book!

Do your homework. Even if you have a loyalty to a particular guidebook series, check the competition is well. All publishers have a couple of books that they’d just as soon forget about – books that aren’t quite up to the series standard for one reason or another. It’s your responsibility to find the best book for your trip. You may find that you want to buy more than one book to cover all of your interests.

And when you do find a mistake or a piece of dated information, perhaps you’ll find it some consolation that, while it may have annoyed you for a minute, we’ll be getting mail about it for the rest of our lives.

Checking Out The Russians In The Hoosgow

The unique thing about St. Petersburg’s new Holiday Hostel kept distracting me as I walked through, checking for bugs under the beds or other tell-tale signs of sloppiness (I didn’t find any). What I was hearing was shouting, and it was coming from…right…next…door. Look at it as a selling point or a travel agent’s nightmare, but it’s certainly unique that the Holiday Hostel’s building is adjacent to St. Petersburg’s Kresty Prison.

Kresty is St. Petersburg’s main holding prison; if you’re busted here, Kresty’s where they take you to await whatever it is that awaits you. And while news reports of a Mafia takeover of the 18th-century City on the Neva are preposterously overblown, crime has increased to the point that Kresty is doing brisk business indeed.

But what distinguishes Kresty from, say, New York’s Riker’s Island, is that Kresty is located on a main boulevard, and prisoners can get to the windows. Russian families are quite close, and in true Russian style, the families of the accused line the street outside, bonding with their inmates.

On any given day, you can see dozens of these well-wishers lining Arsenalnaya naberezhnaya. Mothers, fathers and sometimes even drunken friends stand crying. Wives and girlfriends stand close to the concrete fence, moving their arms in what may look like complicated dance moves, but what is in fact a crude code, known to inmates and prison guards alike.

The prisoner, let’s call him the receiver, makes himself known by holding an article of clothing out the window (they stick their arms through the bars or through holes in the steel mesh). When the sender, down on the street, identifies their man, they start waving their arms about, tracing Cyrillic characters in the air. The receiver waves up and down to signal “I understand”, and side to side to signal “repeat”. Under this method, after three or four minutes of waving, one can clearly discern the message, ‘I-c-a-l-l-e-d-y-o-u-r-f-r-i-e-n-d-M-i-s-h-a’!

The process, understandably, is time consuming (a message like ‘I called your lawyer but he was out to lunch’ could take half an hour or so), but the family and friends on the street below (again in true Russian style) bring along sausage, bread, cheese and thermoses filled with hot tea. Of course, some bring along a bottle of vodka – just to pass the time.

As I left the Hostel, I walked past some of the families waiting to send messages. A black Mercedes-Benz was parked outside; next to it stood an attractive Russian woman in a revealing dress. She was looking towards the prison window and waving. But this woman didn’t need no stinking codes: she was speaking into a cell phone, and as she looked across the prison yard, a tear formed in the corner of her eye.

This was written for Lonely Planet Online in 1995 and subsequently an edited version ran in Lonely Planet’s St Petersburg city guide. That version subsequently made it into the second edition of Lonely Planet’s Russia, Ukraine & Belarus guide. In the latest version, the author who updated the text said that the prison was currently running tours for a fee.

 

Infineon Posts Eighth Straight Loss

Infineon Technologies AG on Tuesday posted its eighth consecutive quarterly net loss – E328 million ($356.5 million), triple its year-earlier loss – despite a 13 percent rise in revenue to E1.48 billion.

The company is the second-largest semiconductor manufacturer in Europe. Infineon and rivals in its main business – making memory chips for personal computers – have suffered through two years of depressed demand and falling prices. In the market for memory chips, only Samsung Electronics Co. has shown a profit for the most recent quarter.

Ulrich Schumacher, Infineon president and chief executive, told analysts during a conference call that while the company had improved its revenue and market share, it could not compensate for the dramatic decline in prices of memory products.

Infineon said that demand from computer manufacturers for memory – which accounts for more than 40 percent of the company’s sales – had picked up. But analysts warn that the outlook is dependent on corporate replacement cycles and increased investment in infrastructure.

Analysts said the results were laced with higher-than-usual extraordinary expenses, especially those for inventory depreciation. Onetime charges totaled E157 million in the quarter.

Andrew Griffen, a Merrill Lynch Co. analyst, said that when viewed on a “clean basis” – that is, without extraordinary charges – the loss per share was about 24 cents, or a slight improvement over the 25 cents Merrill had predicted.

“The revenues were better than analyst consensus,” another analyst for Merrill Lynch said. “We had expected E500 million in memory division revenues, which actually came in at E609 million.”

Viktor Dammann, financial analyst at Bank Vontobel in Zurich, said the “good news” was that the cost of making a 256-megabyte chip – including research and development, depreciation and sales channels – had dropped to E5.40, 50 cents lower than expected. “This was mainly due to a steep increase in production,” he said.

Infineon said memory-chip productivity had reached more than 6,000 wafer-starts per week after upgrading its state-of-the-art 300-millimeter facility in Dresden, which accounted for 40 percent of its dynamic random-access memory production in the quarter.

Journey To Prague

American pilots in Europe are constantly amazed that, in a Skyhawk, you’re often just two hours away from another country. (See related story on how an American with a PPL can rent and fly airplanes in Europe.)

Ten years ago, at the dusk of the Cold War, a trip from Munich to Prague, one of Old Europe’s most beautiful and elegant cities, would have been unheard of. But on a recent sunny autumn afternoon, two friends and I made that two-hour flight. It was both a piece of cake and the thrill of a lifetime.

The Route From Munich to Prague direct is just under two hours, but I’d thought up an interesting little sidetrip to Ceske Budojovice (Budweis). This would be both a leg-stretcher as well as a pilgrimage of sorts to one of beer-lovers’ most holy spots: birthplace of the Czech Budweiser brewery. I figured on a brief stop there, and then we’d depart for the 35-minute leg to Prague.

The return flight would be direct. Nothing could be simpler.

Red Tape
In Europe, the radio work is still in English, and Jeppesen makes the maps in English, too. But the Red Tape Factor was becoming a supreme worry in making my flight plan, as I couldn’t seem to get a straight answer to the procedure for crossing the German/Czech border. Something about a NATO Identification Zone kept coming up, which sounded mildly alarming to say the least!.

In the end, after many phone calls and several blind leads, it turned out to be as simple as a flight from Miami to the Bahamas: a simple filing, in English, of an ICAO International Flight plan form.

Okay, the Czechs are a bit more procedural than their Bahamian counterparts, but it’s essentially the same thing: the plan must include your exact time, altitude and the place where you’ll cross the border. A little nervous about getting all that right, I held off on filing my plan until I picked up my plane at Munich Flyers Flight Club in Augsburg airport, just west of Munich. There I got a final weather briefing (confirming the predicted clear skies and 20kt headwind at 10,000 feet), and faxed off the plan.

I’d verified my intentions by phone with Prague Flight Information regarding the stop in Budweis, and had meticulously noted checkpoints along the entire route to ensure I crossed the border just where I said I would, about four miles north of Philippsreut, a village nestled in the Bavarian Forest.

I phoned Munich Flight Information right after filing my plan, and they assured me that everything was okay. With that, I got out Cessna D-EHMB, a 172, and was in the process of fueling when the airport loudspeaker blared, “Pilot of Cessna Delta-Echo Hotel Mike Bravo, contact Munich Information!”.

My flight plan, it seemed, had been ixnayed by Czech Authorities, who now said that there were no customs officials in Budweis – it was direct to Prague or nothing. The idea of hours of flight planning down the commode and then hastily planning a direct route to Prague while sitting in the cockpit didn’t strike me as particularly pleasant, but we reached a compromise: keep the original flight plan, but turn left over Budweis and head up to Prague.

Munich Airport – Europe’s busiest during peak hours – doesn’t provide flight following services as such, but would give me a transponder code and keep vague track of my progress, ensuring I didn’t venture into restricted airspace or veer glaringly off course.

And, I’m almost sad to report, the flight was almost extraordinary in its ordinariness.

I’d secretly hoped for bizarre instructions, exciting NATO complications and cloak-and-dagger intrigue – perhaps the odd MiG scramble at the border. But the flight was as routine as they come. Well, there was something: finding checkpoints was difficult because each and every town we flew over looked identical! Cluster of red-roofed houses with a church in the middle? Why, that’s clearly Dingolfing..or Straubing.. or Deggendorf ..or possibly Ingolstadt!!.

With the help of a goond flight plan (and, okay, a great GPS and the help of two very keen passenger/navigators), we reached the border transition area spot on time. Munich Flight information handed us off to Prague Information, who gave us permission to climb to 11,500 feet and cross the border. We were in!!.

To save a bit of time, they let us turn left heading 06 degrees on a beeline for Prague, rather than subjecting us to the farce of overflying the now forbidden city of Budweis.

Flight Level Five Five
English may be the language of the skies here, but you’d best speak very slowly and clearly: controllers are used to conversing with non-native speakers, who use a more formal – if stilted – version of the language.

Transition levels in Europe are different from those in the US, where it is above 18,000 feet. About 15 minutes south of Prague, at 9,500 feet, I had a little moment of confusion when the controller then told me to “descend to flight level five five.”.

I replied, thinking I was being clear, “Mike Bravo, leaving niner thousand five hundred for flight level five five, that’s five thousand five hundred feet”, and got back, “Cessna Mike Bravo, I say again, Flight Level Five Five.” .

Allrighty. “Mike Bravo is leaving niner thousand five hundred for flight level five five, that’s five thousand five hundred feet,” I said, slower and even clearer.

“Cessna Mike Bravo, I repeat again,” he said, audibly put out by my rebellious behavior, “descend to Flight Level Five Five.” .

We probably could have gone on all day like that had I not just shut up and said “Roger, Flight Level five five!” And descended to 5,500 feet.

Turns out that was the right thing to do for the wrong reason: As my friend Michel McAloon wrote to correct me, “In most ICAO countrues the published transition altitude may be as low as 3000 feet. Pilots when climnbing through the transition altitude are expected to change their altimiters to the QNE standard of 1013.25 hecopascals (29.92 inches Hg).

Buzzing The Rooftops
Despite that hiccup, things were going swimmingly, and having abandoned my flight plan I was happy to quit looking at the map and let the Prague controllers call my every turn. Prague Info handed me off to Prague tower, and I saw the city just ahead, but I hadn’t ever landed there and couldn’t see the actual field, so I was a bit trepidatious. But I’d figured that, since they had me heading 06, I must be on a straight-in approach to runway 06, right?.

“Cessna Delta-Echo Hotel Mike Bravo, descend to maximum 2000 feet, QNH 1023 and turn left bearing 310 degrees”.

Hmm. Confirm the altimeter setting and..that seems a little, uh, low, as I’m about 500 feet above the ground at this point. My front seat passenger, a Brit, says alto voce “I can see bloody dogs on the ground we’re so bloody low!”.

He’s right, but this is seriously fun; actually instructed to barrel in low over the hillsides and rooftops, with the city of Prague now off my right wing and my passengers boisterously humming Wagner’s Flight of the Valkyries.

The hills dropped away and we were now at the relatively sane height of about 800 feet above the rooftops. I finally saw the airport just ahead, but we were number two after an Austrian 737. The tower asked us to, “make now a left turn for one orbit” (more controllers’ stilted English), then to fly right along over runway 31, turning left just past it to enter the left downwind for runway 06.

I’ve gotten used to shorter, European airstrips so I put it down gently right on the numbers. I was in the midst of telling my passengers, “On behalf of Air Nick, I’d like to welcome you to Prague” when I noticed we could have taken off and landed again in the distance it took for us to trundle over to Taxiway Charlie – Runway 06 is 12,188 feet!.

And then began the rock star treatment: the Follow-Me car was a nice touch, and our plane was met by a minivan bearing the gracious Mr Vlastimil Sovak of the Czech Airports Authority Handling Agency who cheerfully offered hotel booking assistance, information on getting to town by taxi or public transport, and then whisked us off to our own private customs and passport control while our plane was refueled. He even made the exchange office employee cut short his lunch hour so we could get busfare to the center!.

Prague is a spectacularly gorgeous city, and it’s so old its “new town” dates to the 15th century. Alas, flying directly over the spectacular city center is forbidden.

20 minutes after leaving the airport, just outside the Staromestska subway station, we were treated to a sweeping view across the Charles Bridge to the magnificent Prague castle, home to Czech royalty since the 9th century. It seemed that around each corner was another architectural masterpiece!.

We spent the evening wandering Prague’s ancient cobblestone streets, and shopping for the justifiably famous Czech glassware. That night, while I caught up on sleep, my two passengers set out to do the town’s lively bars and clubs, sampling the famous beer and, I’m told, getting treated to several on the strength of the tale of their journey.

The next morning we headed back to Augsburg with no barreling, no low passes, and nary a MiG to be seen. With the exception of a slight detour over a restricted area just inside the German airspace I’d somehow (ahem!) overlooked in my flight plan, the return flight was, technically, eventless.

Isn’t it amazing how technically eventless flights can leave you with memories for a lifetime?

Where are the Nuclear Wessles?

subphotoI’d come to Severodvinsk, about an hour from Arkhangelsk, to see the submarines. An expatriate Italian bartender living in Arkhangelsk had told me I could take pictures of Soviet-built atomic-powered submarines right from the city’s harbor.

‘Course, what he didn’t mention was that Severodvinsk was a “Closed City” – that is, off limits to foreigners even these days – because it’s a storage area for the Soviet-built atomic-powered submarines that park in its harbor. Formerly it was closed because it was a staging area for the nuclear gear that used to be transported to the islands of Novaya Zemlya, back when the Soviet Union was doing above-ground nuclear testing there.

The bartender assured me that, while the city was closed, it wasn’t “very closed” .

After about an hour of looking on my own (I had taken bus No 3 on a three-loop tour of the city before realizing I was going in circles), I finally asked a kid where the subs were (“Excuse me, where are the nuclear submarines?” – which I pulled off with a dignity equal to that of Ensign Chekhov, who asked the same question of a San Francisco cop in Star Trek V) and was directed to a fence at the end of a long, deserted street.

The “fence” turned out to be the entrance to some sort of naval facility, and as I passed the boundary (there was no one guarding it) I realized that from that point on, no amount of pleaded ignorance would help me if I – an American with a camera in a Russian military facility – were caught.

The water was now in sight, the subs just across the harbor from where I stood, but between them and me, moored at the docks, were two large gunships, sporting several large and rather vicious looking guns fore and aft.

A man with a face of stone and wearing an officer’s uniform stood between me and the subs.

“Hi!” I said, with a smile, “May I take a photograph”

The officer looked at me a and grinned, and said, “Why not?”

There were about eight black submarines parked just across the water, but far enough away to make my photographs look as if they were taken by a spy satellite in the 1960s. Still, I got the shots.

I looked over to one of the gunships and saw on board a young woman in a pink coat looking around ear the bridge. As I walked back past the gangplank, I asked the officer if I could take a look around on bord.

He smiled again and said, “Of course, go right up.”

I saw the bridge, and the guns, but I started to get a little nervous; my Russian’s good enough to say what I had said so far, but anything ese would be a hopeless stretch, and I wanted to get out of there fast.

On my way out, a much more senior looking officer approached me with a look of investigatory intent.

“What is he doing here?” he asked, looking at me but speaking to the officer who had let me on board.

“He’s taking an excursion,” said the first.

The senior officer looked at me, rubbed his chin thoughtfully and said to the officer, “You know, we really ought to set up a ticket booth out here.”