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Cancún is a paradigm of “distance lends enchantment to the view”. From the air, it looks fabulous, then as you descend, you notice ominous masses of concrete blocks, and by the time you get into the terminal, you are hit by a hurricane of alarm and ugliness. Hordes of tourists with hairy shins jostle in the hot and humid luggage hall. Mexican customs officers, all decorated to the hilt, look menacing. Outside, an ocean of touts bombard visitors, the taxis are cheap and smelly, and luggage has to be guarded closely in case it is snatched. Along the coast hideous buildings cluster around the shoreline. The whole place is a giant blancmange of a holiday camp, cramped with screaming children, obese parents and mobster-like Latinos, with their ageing mistresses soaked in suntan oils and smeared with pillar-box lipsticks. Inside the hotels there is the echoing hum of conveyor belts of monster buffets decked out with mini-umbrella cocktails, and monotonous Caribbean steel pan music. I spent a day exploring that commercial cesspool while in transit to Havana. It was a stopover that nearly ended my faith in travelling. But thankfully, the people I saw there were robot tourists, not cerebral travellers.
Burnie is another alarming city, a port on the northern coast of Tasmania. On my first night there, I ventured into a bar because it had the brightest light along the street. The jukebox was playing “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree”, which was my parents’ favourite. Sipping on my shandy, I was approached by a muscle-bound local, who introduced himself to me as Steve, a sheep farmer. He asked if I would dance with him. I really had to think lightning fast about what might happen if I had refused him, but I felt I really couldn’t oblige and, like a jelly in a high wind, spluttered, “perhaps later”. The moment he was out of sight, I bolted out of the bar and ran back to my nearby hotel where I bolted my door. In the morning, such was my appetite to rid myself of my unpleasant city experience I drove to the western tip of the Tasmanian island, where Aborigines were slaughtered and the Tasmanian tiger became extinct. I had come to inspect an estate that was owned by an extraordinary company that had a Royal Charter, called Van Diemen’s Land Company. But even in this rural area there was no respite from my city experience because the place was eerie. Walking through the land, I felt as if I was at a massive outdoor seance. I couldn’t wait to turn back to Burnie, which reminded me that cities do not hold exclusive rights over horribleness. It was Scylla and Charybdis.
In daylight Burnie, I searched in vain for an attractive building, shopfront, or site. There were ugly cranes in the sky and ugly cruise ships that had docked by the quay, and there was a concatenation of warehouses with corrugated iron roofs and bungalows and low-rises that were poorly painted in an uncoordinated colour scheme. The beach was empty, awash with black seaweed and rubbish. I couldn’t wait to egress.
Macau must win the accolade of a city whose charm evaporated overnight when it was returned to Chinese sovereignty. For over 440 years, the place was ruled by the Portuguese. Utterly parochial with just a population of 400,000, the enclave had attractive colonial buildings and cobblestone streets and an atmosphere of history and the long, fruitful and harmonious community created by the Portuguese and Chinese living side by side.
Those of us who lived in Hong Kong, just 40 miles away, regularly took the jetfoils across for the weekend there, taking a girlfriend or a mistress or even a wife to a charming restaurant and staying the night at a romantic hotel. Sometimes, we would go gambling at the theatrical Lisboa Casino. But on the day after the Portuguese colony was returned to Chinese sovereignty in 1999 garish casinos, hotels and shopping malls materialised, all built in record time by avaricious Americans and Chinese. They couldn’t wait a nanosecond to lay their hands on the Chinese punters from mainland China. And how right they were. Today, 17 million mainland Chinese come through Macau every year, and its gambling revenues recently amounted to $45bn, which is seven times more than the Las Vegas Strip. The price for this exponential growth is a gargantuan building site with tacky designs and tinny replicas of the Eiffel Tower and St Mark’s Square in Venice, replete with toy canals and gondolas, peddled by wobbling Chinese in full gondolier uniforms.
Casinos and shopping arcades now rule the roost and somnambulant punters come and go, some with grim countenances hiding their secret losses, and others smiling as they splash their spoils on ostentatious retail. Outside, the narrow streets are dead, the skyline an undulating mess of soulless silhouettes, and more and more cars jam the roads. Money launderers mingle with fortune hunters. In the shadows of the ubiquitous pawn shops, with their sleepless neon signs, the place filled with an overwhelming sense of depression, despair, despondency and delinquency.
Crossing continents to Africa, the standout miserable cities include Ouagadougou, Maputo and Harare. They are without any appeal to me. They seem utterly joyless. I feel the same with so many other cities in Africa: Johannesburg, Lagos, Windhoek, Tunis, Tripoli, Nairobi, Kampala, and Casablanca, the latter completely misrepresented in the romantic film. If the truth be told, the African continent is a soft target for complaints of dirty, dusty and rotten cities, because they are easy prey for corrupt military governments that behave like Mr Kurtz in Heart of Darkness.
As I’ve already indicated, Asia doesn’t fare better. There are so many unattractive cities: Manila, Bangkok, Ho Chi Minh City, Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur, Seoul, Pyongyang, Busan, Taipei, Port Moresby, Chongqing, Urumqi, Hohhot, and the champion: Shenzhen . . . The list is endless; and for each and every one of them, I wouldn’t care if I did not see them again for another ten reincarnations. From the Middle East, I would wish for even more reincarnations: Abu Dhabi and Dubai seem to project over their sun-drenched skies an emblem of Plutus, like Batman with his silhouette in Gotham City. The people on the sands below live for fast and easy money, meandering in and out of skyscrapers that reek of businesses too good to be true, with wags among other lazy tourists breezing in and out of the crystal clear water that was once infested with E.coli.
Manama in Bahrain is even worse because everything is at least three or five notches down from Abu Dhabi and Dubai, which is saying something.
Come to think of it, each continent tells the same story: each consists of so many awful cities: the United States is choked with them. Countries from Central and South America are worse. It is not a sobering thought that in considering grim cities around the world, that I should come to the conclusion that most I have been to easily qualify. Maybe Europe, or at least western Europe, escapes with having the fewest detestable cities. Even so, I hate Leeds.
What is your worst city? Why? Join the debate by commenting below
Photographs: Brent Lewin/Bloomberg; Getty Images/Moment RM; Alamy; Matteo Colombo/Getty Images; Getty Images; Dennis Gilbert/Getty Images
This article has been amended since publication because an incorrect image was used to portray the city of Shenzhen