Capitals in Asia
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The capital of China is a mind-blowing mix of imperial leftovers, bombastic communist relics, Chinese boom economy malls and just a lot of ordinary Chinese. Though it is constantly being rebuilt, there are still lots of elaborated temples, cramped hutongs and green parks with old people chatting between ultra wide boulevards. There are so many historical sites dating back to all the dynasties, that most people get templed-out before seeing them all. Luckily, there is also modern architecture, the mausoleum of Mao, and, the Chinese's favorite, never-ending shopping. If you are still standing when the night falls, head to one of the bar areas for a quiet drink - or pull an all-nighter in a Chinese disco. Almost everything is possible in Beijing, though you will probably get a stern look from one of many uniformed teen guards just for standing out.
Capital of East Timor
A colonial leftover from the Portuguese. It has been through a lot of war, massacres and general neglect. Burnt-out buildings are still a common sight and the roads are dotted with bottomless manholes, but it has edge and charm like a street urchin. The packed Santa Cruz cemetery along with the Truth Committee center CAVR can give some insight of the violent recent history of this young nation. For a bit of tranquility, head for the nice waterfront which has several narrow beaches and clear view to Atauro island. These days the town is fueled by UN and NGO money, meaning there exists a surprisingly good selection of eating places. The best part though, is the locals are still friendly, honest and welcoming.
Capital of Iraqi Kurdistan
Erbil (also spelled Arbil or Irbil) is a very spread-out city. The heart of the old part is the citadel that crowns the city from a hill. The old building stretches right to the edge of the hill and all the facades facing the city have been done up, but otherwise the citadel is pretty much left in ruins. Below the citadel entrance is the newly rebuilt city square with illuminated fountains and a clock tower. To the sides you find the real Erbil in shape of the covered souq to the west and the rowdy market street of Handren St. to the east. For a different experience, head for the Christian quarter at Ainkawa, a taxi ride away - the rows of liquor stores will indicate when you are there.
Capital of Kazakhstan
More often than not, capital cities are a process of evolution. Whether a city grew out from commercial prominence or militaristically strategic location or any other number of factors, the cities start small and become a capital over time. This is not the case of Kazakhstan's capital, Astana. Prior to the 1990's, Akmolinsk was little more than a farm town. But after Kazakh independence in 1991, the location was chosen to become the new capital. A bizarre array of ultra-modern buildings, strange monuments and even a large aquarium were all part of the plan of the purpose-built city, officially made capital in 1997. The whole place is surreal and worth the trek to the middle of nowhere just to see it.
Capital of Kyrgyzstan
Perhaps initially perceived as a little rough and tumble, the Kyrgyz capital of Bishkek has a few surprises up its sleeves. The undisputed transport hub of the country, a visit here is almost inevitable. But what may come as a shock is there are more than enough things to do to keep one busy for a few days. A couple of museums (including the excellent Historical museum), dirt cheap theatres (ballet and opera) and even a circus will keep culture vultures more than occupied. Several old-school markets make for excellent shopping and people watching. A decent supply of restaurants and cafes line the treed boulevards making for relaxing dining. Not to mention a fair share of clubs and bars to rock the night away. Plus several chilled parks if it all gets a little much. You have to make an effort to actually get bored in Bishkek.
Capital of Laos
Lovely Vientiane is tiny and unpretentious, and doesn't feel at all like a capital. It is not many years ago when chickens ran around in the unsealed streets. Today, many of the fine old French colonial mansions have been done up and turned into stylish boutiques or artsy cafes for the increasing numbers of tourists, but Vientiane hasn't lost its innocence (yet). Monks stroll down the boulevards, one of the tallest constructions is still the golden stupa Pha That Luang and the best place for a cold Beer Lao is still the Mekong riverfront. So it is hard not to be spellbound by Vientiane's charm.
Capital of Malaysia
Neither as flashy as Singapore nor as crazy as Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur (or just KL as locals call it) is often considered a bit tame, but that just makes it easier to approach for first timers. Dull or not, it does have its own distinct flavour worth exploring. The major attractions are a few major sights along with the ethnic colourful "hoods", Kampung Baru, Little India and Chinatown. If shopping is your thing, KL can match in both price and range what you find in the neighbouring capitals. So if you need to replace some of your travel stuff or just get some western gear, this is a good place to stock up. Or just splurge in the exorbitant selection of street food and restaurants.
Former capital of Myanmar
Yangon is rundown. It looks like it was built centuries ago (it was, during mid 1800s by the British) and then left to decay (it was). The once pastel-coloured houses are covered in mold, streets are riddled in potholes, and there are loose hanging wires everywhere. Yangon is soaked in grit and feels very exotic - even for Asia-harden travellers. The traffic is another... hmm, interesting thing in Yangon. You can either take a ride with a tricycle rickshaws, a slow and uncomfortable, but cheap, way to get around, or join the dense crowds on the public buses. Some of these buses are pre WWII and in shocking condition, but nevertheless a miracle since they still run. Newer second-hand buses have been imported from Japan, meaning passengers have to get in and out from the traffic side, since driving in Myanmar is on right side (and left in Japan). Beside getting use to the odd things in Myanmar, Yangon has several interesting sights where the impressive Shwedagon pagoda, of course, tops the list.
Capital of North Korea (D.P.R.K), population 2.5 million.
A visit to Pyongyang is more a trip back in time than anything else. The broad streets are vacuumed of everything besides political manifests. The few shops that exist do not advertise, the bright blue traffic directors (strangely all makeup-wearing young females) look like something from a children's book, and all the women fancy haircuts from the 50s. Even the subway (which by the way is the deepest in the world, going 120 m underground) looks like a toy model. It is a wicked mix of drab Soviet-style buildings and grand monuments, which are all dedicated to their dear, dead, leader Kim Il-Sung and his son Kim Jong-Il. This fascinating city is built on ideology and fully cleansed from all capitalism - and where else on the planet do such places exist? Welcome to people's paradise!
Capital of Oman
Muscat is the only real city in Oman. It is accountable for a third of the country's population, but even 1 million people doesn't feel that big when it's spread out as Muscat is. Rather than one dense city, Muscat is made out of connecting towns, each with its own vibe. The walled old town of Muscat is where the Sultan's palace is. Mutrah is the picturesque area along the waterfront where you also find the covered market, the so-called souq. The corniche is particularly nice with great views over the harbour and on a backdrop of craggy mountains. Further inland you find the buzzing neighbourhood of Ruwi which is Muscat's "Little India". For a modern feel (read Starbucks and similar cafes), head to the area along the coast at Shatti al-Qurm. Muscat is a fine mix of new and old, without being as rich in history as Sanaa in Yemen nor as sparkling as the other oil-money-spoiled capitals in the region.