My Shanghai Is Better Than Yours: The Best Places to Play
One of my favorite things to do is wander. If you see an interesting alleyway (the older and smaller, the better), explore it; Shanghai is one of the safest big cities in the world. But go sooner rather than later. Old Shanghai, sadly, is disappearing at an alarming rate.
I rarely wake up as early as most Shanghainese do; but on those odd occasions, usually thanks to jet lag, I people-watch at Fuxing Park, an old French park in Luwan. Tai chi, fishing, ballroom dancing--it's got it all. It also has a granite statue of Marx and Engels, and late at night it becomes a hot spot for those heading to the two dance clubs located inside the park.
Nearby is a branch of the popular karaoke club Party World, also known as Cash Box. The Chinese love to sing, and karaoke is something that every visitor should experience (not to be confused with KTV, another type of singing establishment that has become synonymous with hookers). Party World is all private rooms that are booked in advance.
If you prefer to have other people perform, go to the 76-year-old Shanghai Concert Hall, south of People's Square. Three years ago, the gorgeous hall was lifted--all 5,650 tons of it--and moved 77 yards, where it's now the centerpiece of a park.
The jazz scene has enjoyed a renaissance of late, and the genre is easily the most reliable source of quality live music in the city. Some say JZ Club, in Xuhui, is Shanghai's best live music venue, period. I like the sexy laid-back feel of Number Five, in the basement of one of the neoclassical beauties on the Bund, Shanghai's majestic waterfront.
For sports fans, the best game in town is soccer, even if the Chinese pro league is rife with scandal and corruption. Shanghai Shenhua matches, in Hongkou Stadium, can be electric. The season runs March to November, and tickets from the window or a scalper shouldn't cost more than $6.
I'm not much of a museum person. I have, however, made a few trips to the Shanghai Urban Planning Center, inside People's Square. A scale model of what city planners envision Shanghai will look like in 2010, when the World Expo comes to town, takes up an entire level of the museum.
I recently discovered the Shanghai Post Museum, which opened in January inside the impressive 1931 Shanghai District Post Office building, overlooking Suzhou Creek. The roof garden offers exceptional views of Shanghai's skyline.
Further inland along Suzhou Creek sits 50 Moganshan Lu, a maze of converted warehouses and factories in Putuo District that now house the soul of Shanghai's contemporary art scene. It's easy to spend an afternoon at the dozens of galleries and artist studios. A similarly hip, though more commercial, vibe can be found at 210 Taikang Lu, an old neighborhood where many artists and designers have set up shop in renovated brick lane homes.
Chinese hipsters take their laptops to Xinle Lu's Boonna Cafe . For colder beverages of the alcoholic variety, I suggest Cotton's, a bar and restaurant in a stately 1930s home that is said to have been the residence of Shanghai's first mayor. In warm weather, drink in the large tree-shaded garden.
The city's most prominent places of worship are tied to Western religions, but if you have your heart set on visiting a Buddhist temple, Xuhui's Longhua Temple, Shanghai's largest and most active Buddhist center, will satisfy your needs. A seven-story wooden pagoda built more than 1,000 years ago is the signature structure. The Longhua Martyrs' Memorial, nearby, is an interesting slice of military history; it includes the original prisoners' barracks and tunnels.
Now for another activity that should probably include a little prayer: riding a bike. Some folks believe you can't truly do the city until you've pedaled among the masses. I'm not one of those people. But if you are, Cycle China organizes group and individual tours.
That, logically, brings me to my final tip. You can find great Chinese massages in Shanghai for around $5 per 45 minutes. Double Rainbow, where many of the professionally trained therapists happen to be blind, is reliable. Chinese massages can be intense, however, and afterward I often feel like . . . well, like I need a massage. So lately I've been splurging (about $25) for gentler hour-long oil massages. Dragonfly Therapeutic Retreat offers a tranquil setting for this heavenly experience.
Stay away from the "massage parlors" with the pink lights and girls in knee-high boots. They're brothels. Capitalism is alive and well in Communist China.
My first few years were pretty lean as far as live music goes. I like indie rock, while Shanghai preferred Filipino bar bands and "world-ranked" DJs. But a year ago, almost overnight, rock music arrived. Lately, two of the more reliable underground rock options have been Live Bar and Shuffle Bar. Live Bar, 20 minutes from downtown, is raw and divey. You can get a tall bottle of Tsingtao for less than $2, and you'll be sitting on plastic furniture (721 Kunming Lu, by Tongbei Lu, 011-86/21-2833-6764). Shuffle Bar has a slightly more refined warehouse feel. Prices are a little higher, but at least your feet don't stick to the floor (137 Xingfu Lu, by Fahuazhen Lu, 011-86/21-6283-2769, shufflebar.com). For current concert listings, visit Shanghaistreets.net or, of course, Shanghaiist.com.
My Shanghai Is Better Than Yours: Where to Shop
Shop In Shanghai, someone's always trying to sell you something. It can be maddening, particularly when the same guy tries to sell you the same Rolex at the same corner every single day. But when you really want to shop, this bazaar-like quality is a blessing--even if the best options rarely approach you on the street. Small, unassuming Tree, in Xuhui, for example, is the perfect place to order a custom-made leather shoulder bag (around $85) or a pair of cowboy boots (around $115) for a fraction of what you'd pay in the States. Designer Yan Feng will help you with a sketch, or you can choose one of the many items on the store walls. The owner designs many of the wares at Christine Tsui's Fashion Club, where handbags (from $30) and other accessories blend modern and ancient aesthetics. The shop is in northern Xuhui on Xinle Lu, a lovely lane lined with boutiques, some set away from the street and buffered by gardens. On the west end of Xinle is Sideways, the only head shop I'm aware of in the city. Always an entertaining visit. A couple streets north is Brocade Country, filled with hand-stitched tapestries (from $24) that Liu Xiao Lan hauls back from Miao villages in central China. Walk through a nearby parking lot to get to Spin, a sleek ceramics shop. The owner of Shintori, a Japanese restaurant, was spending too much on replacing broken china, so he hired designers and started making his own. Simple cups are less than $5, a nice alternative to the tea sets most tourists buy. Many of those tea sets will be purchased at Yu Yuan, the historic garden/megamall in Old City. Before buying anything there, check out Cang Bao Lou Market, the five-story building at the end of Old Street. It's the wholesale market that supplies a lot of Yu Yuan's shops. Bargain hard. That advice will serve you well at most markets. Try to pay no more than 30 percent of the initial price, and assume that nothing's authentic. If it's a name brand, it's fake; if it's "old," it was made two weeks ago and rubbed in dirt. At the Dongtai Lu Antique Market, near Old City, sift through the junk to find fun gifts. Across the street is the Xizang Lu Flower and Bird Market, which is what it sounds like (except the bird-flu scare has chased away most of the birds). In the fall, you might catch some cricket-fighting. Two of Shanghai's most popular markets are in flux. The Dongjiadu Lu Fabric Market has just moved 500 meters and will now be called the South Bund Fabric Market . The new air-conditioning is a plus, but the market has lost some of its character. It's still the spot for affordable made-to-measure clothes; just don't expect perfection. I once got a tuxedo there for $50. The famous Xiangyang Market (a.k.a. the "fake market") is slated to close June 30 to make way for an office, retail, and hotel complex. For old stuff that's actually old, head to Guo Chun Xiang's Curiosity Shop on Duolun Lu, a pleasant walking street in Hongkou. Guo has a spectacular U-shaped showroom packed with relics from the first half of the 20th century. Art Deco, in the fabulous Moganshan Lu art district, also offers a glimpse into the city's roaring pre-Communism years. Husband and wife team Ding Yi and Wang Yiwu have assembled a grand collection of furniture from the 1920s, '30s, and '40s. For a little fun, try Nantai Costume Company, five minutes west of the Bund. Nantai outfits many of the local opera troupes and has the ambience of a factory store. Shelves are stacked with everything from tasseled platform slippers to stringy beards. Say hello to Chun Ge, the store's pet mynah bird--he'll say ni hao back. The kid in you will enjoy POP Shanghai, a quirky housewares store in the Bridge 8 complex in Luwan. I can't get enough of the retro tin wind-up robots (from $5). Finally, there's the Shanghai Xin Mai Peng Electronics Market. Known to some as the Gray Market, it's dark and a little dirty. There are lots of electronics, but I've seen everything from swords to baseball bats. A couple of shops sell iPods: Best not to ask where they came from or, as a friend discovered, expect them to work very well. A little pink book called inSHop ($4) provides brief introductions to 50 cool boutiques and studios, as well as interviews with 20 up-and-coming designers. The text is in English and Chinese, perfect for showing taxi drivers during communication breakdowns. Everything is organized by neighborhood, with maps. Zheng Ye, one of the book's editors, says they plan to release a new edition each year. In a city changing as rapidly as Shanghai, that's a necessity; sections of the 2005 edition are already out of date, thanks to good ol' Mr. Wrecking Ball. InSHop is available at two of my favorite bookstores, Garden Books (325 Changle Lu, near Shaanxi Nan Lu, 011-86/21-5404-8729) and Shanghai Foreign Language Bookstore (390 Fuzhou Lu, near Fujian Zhong Lu, 011-86/21-6322-3200). Tree 126 Wulumuqi Nan Lu, near Yongjia Lu, 011-86/21-6467-1758 Christine Tsui's Fashion Club 24 Xinle Lu, near Shaanxi Lu, 011-86/21-5403-3156 Sideways 144 Xinle Lu, near Fumin Lu, 011-86/21-5404-5350 Brocade Country 616 Julu Lu, 011-86/21-6279-2677 Spin 758 Julu Lu, Building 3, 1st Fl., 011-86/21-6279-2545 Cang Bao Lou Market 457 Fangbang Zhong Lu, near Henan Nan Lu Dongtai Lu Antique Market Dongtai Lu and Liuhekou Lu, near Xizang Lu Xizang Lu Flower and Bird Market Xizang Lu, near Liuhekou Lu South Bund Fabric Market 399 Lujiabang Lu Guo Chun Xiang's Curiosity Shop 179-181 Duolun Lu, near Sichuan Bei Lu, 011-86/21-5696-3948 Art Deco 50 Moganshan Lu, Building 7, 1st Fl., 011-86/21-6277-8927 Nantai Costume Company 181 Henan Zhong Lu, near Fuzhou Lu, 011-86/21-6323-8344 POP Shanghai Bridge 8 Complex, 8 Jianguo Zhong Lu, Block 5, Room 5018, 011-86/21-5466-5108 Shanghai Xin Mai Peng Electronics Market 638 Qiujiang Lu, 91 Baoshan Lu, and 723 Qiujiang Lu
My Shanghai Is Better Than Yours
I arrived in Shanghai by accident, really. I had a decent gig at a small newspaper outside Atlanta--they paid me to try a new activity each week (bull riding, skydiving, nude water volleyball . . . ) and write about my experiences. Not bad. Of course, I also had to cover high school tennis, but there are always tradeoffs in life. Nearly four years into my Georgia stay, with another high school sports season on the horizon, I suddenly decided I needed to make a change. I didn't know what, and I didn't know where. I just knew I wanted something . . . different. An e-mail here, a contact there, and faster than you can say "career suicide," I had signed a one-year contract to teach English at a place called Shanghai University. Different, indeed. Four years later, my teaching days far behind me, I'm still in Shanghai. And I have no plans to leave. Western journalists have taken to calling Shanghai "the most exciting city on Earth," and while I generally think anyone who writes such hyperbolic swill should be fired on the spot, it's true that Shanghai is certainly never boring. The city is constantly changing, always reinventing itself. The relentless pace of the place is addictive. I have fallen in love with Shanghai (and no, that's not hyperbole). I had a personal website before I moved to Shanghai, so I kept it going once I got here. Hard to believe now, but back in 2002, there was a dearth online of English-language information about the city. My blog, Shanghaidiaries.com, quickly attracted a dedicated readership. Last summer, I launched Shanghaiist.com, a blog that has since become one of the most popular English-language websites about Shanghai. It's kind of funny: Four years ago I was the guy asking all the questions, and now I'm the one other people look to for answers. I receive e-mail after e-mail from people the world over wanting to know about Shanghai, Shanghai, Shanghai. I respond to most of them, too. Think of the following 3,000 words as a giant mass e-mail about the city that I happily call home. Eat You probably aren't visiting Shanghai for its hamburgers--which are getting a lot better, by the way--so I'm focusing on Chinese restaurants. Whittling my list down was no easy task; Shanghai is a great city for anyone who loves to eat. Shanghainese cuisine gets a bad rap: too oily, some say, or too sweet. But when prepared correctly, it can be delicious. (You'll hear that word a lot: It's one of the first English words students here learn.) On a small, dark street in Luwan District, Chun ("Spring" in Chinese) serves the best home-style Shanghainese food in town. Reservations are essential, as Chun has just four tables. Simply ask the owner what she recommends. If you don't speak Chinese, have your hotel concierge write "please feed us well" on a piece of paper. You'll be taken care of. There are a dozen more tables and an English menu at Jesse in Xuhui District, but you still need reservations. The braised pork is, well, delicious. If you're out late, hope for a seat at Jing'an District's Bao Luo, a cavernous joint that stays open until 6 a.m. and often has lines out the door. I like the sauteed tofu and crabmeat. Ye Olde Station Restaurant, in the heart of Xujiahui, is a little more upscale. Despite its name and the old train cars that double as dining rooms, it was never an old station. It was a French monastery, founded in 1921. (The equally regal St. Ignatius Cathedral is across the street.) Savor the tender Mandarin fish--a steamed river fish that the server will debone--then explore the grand building, which is the epitome of Old Shanghai. You must try xiaolongbao, often called "soup dumplings." While the steamed delicacies--thin pastry skins filled with meat and scaldingly hot soup (be careful!)--can be found on many a corner, ordering them in English will get you nowhere. The easy solution is tourist-friendly Nanxiang Mantou Dian, in the kitsch capital of Old City, Yu Yuan. Nanxiang is famous, and recognizable by the long take-out line (pay more to get a seat upstairs). Gourmands grumble about a decline in quality at Nanxiang, preferring the Taiwanese chain Din Tai Fung in Luwan's Xintiandi development, despite a sterile atmosphere and higher prices. The xiaolongbao's fried cousin is shengjian mantou, which is worth the wait at Yang's Fry-Dumpling . While we're on the subject of dumplings, I could live on jiaozi, minced meat and/or veggies in ravioli-esque skins. They're boiled, steamed, or fried and served with an addictive soy-vinegar sauce. Da Qing Hua is a chain--I go to the one in Jing'an--but it has a wonderful selection of jiaozi and other hearty specialties from the northeast. Don't miss the bizarre "penis shrine" in the men's room. Spice things up even more at Shu Di La Zi Yu Guan, a multistory Sichuan joint in northern Xuhui that specializes in la zi yu, a vat of tongue-numbing, flaky fish drowned in an oily broth and red chili peppers. (The huge bullfrogs you see in tanks just inside the entrance? They cook up quite nicely.) Slightly more sophisticated, Guyi, a Hunan restaurant in Jing'an, can make you breathe fire. I've enjoyed everything I've had there, especially the pork ribs with cumin. Personally, I had always identified with that line from Lost in Translation: "What kind of restaurant makes you cook your own food?" Oddly named Dolar Shop, however, recently converted me to hot pot. You sit before an individual pot bubbling with broth. Toss in meats and vegetables, wait a couple minutes, and enjoy. Nice view, too. Speaking of fun, Afanti serves Xinjiang food, which is more Middle East than Far East, in a raucous atmosphere well worth the 25-minute cab ride to Hongkou District. Stuff yourself with roast mutton and Xinjiang Black Beer, and enjoy the belly dancers. I've been to Xinjiang, in the west, and Afanti rings true, down to the clientele. After Afanti, a time-out from meat will be in order. My fiancee, a vegetarian, thinks Vegetarian Lifestyle is the best place in town. Drinks include a variety of juices and teas, but no alcohol, and it's one of the only nonsmoking establishments in China. Dim sum is a breakfast and lunch tradition here, so get to Xintiandi's Crystal Jade early. I'm a big fan of the Sichuan dan dan noodles--so what if they're not technically dim sum--in peanut broth. In Xuhui, Taiwanese restaurant Charmant (I don't understand the name, either) has an equally expansive menu, with creative desserts. Just don't try to drink the "smoothies"; you need a spoon. The restaurant I go to most often is Xing Xing, in the old Jing'an lane area I call home. Everything is fresh, and I love the huntun soup (akin to wonton soup, but a whole lot better). Poke around the Hua Ye Xiao Qu neighborhood: If you see a tall white guy walking a cute dog, say hello. Assuming you won't want Chinese food for every meal, let me suggest a hip new place, serving Western fare, that may not have found its way into your guidebook. A Future Perfect, in the beautifully renovated first floor of an old Shanghai lane house, is a cozy--verging on cramped--cafe, restaurant, and bar that serves up equal parts style and substance. Five of us ate there recently--appetizers, entrees, desserts, and drinks--and the bill was $120 (No. 16, Lane 351 Huashan Lu, near Changshu Lu, 011-86/21-6248-8020). A Future Perfect also boasts one of the nicest outdoor dining areas in Shanghai. The restaurant shares the 1930s brick house with the Old House Inn, one of the city's only boutique hotels. The 12 charmingly decorated rooms range in price from $65 to $130 (011-86/21-6248-6118, oldhouse.cn). Chun 124 Jinxian Lu, near Maoming Lu, 011-86/21-6256-0301, $15 (prices listed are for two) Jesse 41 Tianping Lu, near Huaihai Zhong Lu, 011-86/21-6282-9260, $30 Bao Luo 271 Fumin Lu, near Changle Lu, 011-86/21-5403-7239, $18 Ye Olde Station 201 Caoxi Bei Lu, 011-86/21-6427-2233, $40 Nanxiang Mantou Dian Inside Yu Yuan, 5 Yu Yuan Lu, 011-86/21-6355-4206, $2-$30 Din Tai Fung Xingye Lu, near Madang Lu, South Block Xintiandi, Lane 123, House 6-7, 2nd Fl., 011-86/21-6385-8378, $35 Yang's Fry-Dumpling Wujiang Lu, south of Shimen Yi Lu metro station, $2 Da Qing Hua 466 Changde Lu, by Xinzha Lu, 011-86/21-6289-9999, $16 Shu Di La Zi Yu Guan 187 Anfu Lu, near Wulumuqi Zhong Lu, 011-86/21-5403-7684, $12 Guyi 89 Fumin Lu, 011-86/21-6249-5628, $20 Dolar Shop 1728 Nanjing Xi Lu, Bailemen Hotel, floors 20-21, 011-86/21-6249-7188, $20 Afanti Tianshan Hotel, 775 Quyang Lu, 011-86/21-6555-9604, $12 Vegetarian Lifestyle 258 Fengxian Lu, near Jiangning Lu, 011-86/21-6215-7566, $15 Crystal Jade Xingye Lu, near Madang Lu, South Block Xintiandi, Lane 123, House 6-7, 2nd Fl., 011-86/21-6385-8752, $25 Charmant 1414 Huaihai Zhong Lu, near Fuxing Xi Lu, 011-86/21-6431-8107, $15 Xing Xing Shaanxi Bei Lu, Lane 193, No. 60, near Nanjing Xi Lu, 011-86/21-6272-5821, $3
Next time you're at a museum, don't assume that the guy listening to an iPod is too into his music to enjoy Monet. Podcast tours are available for a growing number of museums, from the Kansas Museum of History in Topeka to Paris's Musee d'Orsay. Tours tend to avoid the stuffy "enter here and notice . . ." lecture format so frequently heard on rented headsets. Instead, the new audio guides are big on discussions with artists, casual conversations with critics and academics, and sometimes even the irreverent comments of amateurs. And for now at least, most are free. Downloadable tours sanctioned by museums are available on websites of institutions like New York City's Metropolitan Museum of Art, St. Louis's Contemporary Art Museum, and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. A recent "artcast" about the latter's exhibit, "1906 Earthquake: A Disaster in Pictures," included the first winning entry from the museum's ongoing podcast competition--in which the catastrophe is re-created with narration, music, and sound effects. (SFMOMA even knocks $2 off admission if you show you've downloaded one of its podcasts.) Minneapolis's innovative Walker Art Center has iPod docks in the lobby so you can download tours on the spot. Perhaps even more interesting are unauthorized audio tours. In Slate's guide to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan (slate.com/id/2123266), which includes a printable PDF map of the tour, you can listen to art critic Lee Siegel seethe over "Therese Dreaming," a 1938 Balthus painting. "I think Balthus is one of the most overrated painters in this museum," he says. "Please pass into the next room." Like his TV shows and guidebooks, Rick Steves's podcast tours of Paris's Musee d'Orsay and Louvre are informative, with a dose of cornball humor (ricksteves.com). BBC host Paul Rose leads wacky, 25-minute tours in six U.K museums in his "Take One Museum" series (bbc.co.uk). Because these podcasts are so new and topics change frequently, a comprehensive list of where they're offered is hard to come by. MuseumPods.com welcomes museums to submit audio tours; at last check, there were 22. A search for "museum podcast" at iTunes returned more than 30 tours. For those who don't own an iPod, some museums, including the Walker Art Center and the San Jose Museum of Art, offer cell-phone tours. Dial the numbers listed in museum handouts or on plaques near sculptures and paintings to listen to artists and curators discussing the works at hand. Like podcasts, cell-phone tours are free for the time being, but the minutes are on you if you go over your monthly allotment. iPod tour help desk Getting audio files onto your iPod can be complicated. If you're downloading MP3 files directly from a website, rather than from an aggregator service like iTunes, you might have to save the files to a folder on your desktop. If you have a Mac, click on the files and they should move to your iTunes and start playing. If they don't, or if you have a PC, drag them in yourself. You can also download podcasts automatically through iTunes: Go to the "Subscribe to Podcast" option, and then manually paste the feed (links ending in .xml) into the box that pops up.
To Boycott or Not to Boycott
Last spring, North Korea announced it would grant visas to Americans attending the Arirang festival, which is held daily from August 10 through October 10 and consists of an astounding synchronized stadium performance with a cast of 100,000. With few exceptions, Americans may enter the country only if they book tour packages overseen by the North Korean government. Tour groups are assigned two state-approved guides, and itineraries are limited to sites glorifying the regime. There are almost no opportunities to interact with locals. For bragging rights alone, such a trip is tempting. But just because you're allowed to go doesn't mean you should. Foreign dollars spent in North Korea aid a government widely regarded as one of the world's most oppressive. Still, deciding whether to visit a country isn't a black-and-white choice. Activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi has asked Westerners to avoid travel to Myanmar while its repressive regime remains in place. The Dalai Lama, on the other hand, is famous for opposing Chinese rule in Tibet, yet he supports responsible travel to the Himalayan nation in order to increase awareness of the issues there. Travelers also help locals feel less isolated, and they bring in desperately needed money. So how do you figure out the right thing to do? Human rights organizations rarely advocate an all-out boycott of any nation. Instead, they encourage people to educate themselves and make informed decisions. Human Rights Watch (hrw.org) and Amnesty International (amnestyusa.org) publish in-depth reports on more than 150 countries--including the U.S.--keeping tabs on issues such as torture, minority oppression, and freedom of speech. OneWorld United States (us.oneworld.net) is part of a global network of some 1,600 progressive organizations that lets you search by topic through hundreds of articles written by journalists and activists. You can also browse studies by the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor (state.gov/g/drl/hr), going back to 1993: Pick a year, choose a world area, then click. Select Cuba, for example, and you'll be briefed on political prisoners, questionable arrests, and detentions. The nonprofit, nonpartisan Freedom House (freedomhouse.org) provides detailed national dossiers; a map that shows which countries are "free," "partly free," and "not free"; and rankings for civil liberty from 1 (highest freedom) to 7 (lowest). In 2005, China, Cambodia, Egypt, Laos, and the United Arab Emirates, which are all popular with tourists, rated a 5 or worse. There are also resources if you're concerned about specific groups. The International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (http://www.www.iglhrc.org/) focuses on the treatment of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and HIV-positive groups worldwide. You can find up-to-date information about the many countries that still have antigay laws on the books, including the Bahamas and Jamaica, on the website sodomylaws.org. MADRE (madre.org), an international women's rights organization, posts articles about reproductive rights, violence against women, and working conditions for women around the world. The organization also arranges themed trips, such as one to Kenya last June that combined a safari with a visit to a village that had established a violence-free zone specifically for women. "Travelers must understand they have an impact and a choice," says Jeff Greenwald, executive director of the Ethical Traveler (ethicaltraveler.org), an organization committed to strengthening human rights and environmental protection. "As much as possible, put your money where your heart is." It's not all shades of gray Freedom House, a nonprofit formed in New York City in 1941, rates countries according to political rights and civil liberties. A map on its website shows which nations are free (green), partly free (yellow), and not free (purple). Click on any country at the site for more in-depth info. If you do decide to go . . . Get your dollars to the people: "Buy local, stay local, and hire local," says Malia Everette, director of Global Exchange's Reality Tours. Choose privately run B&Bs and inns over government-owned hotels and buy souvenirs at community markets. Go independent: With most packages, tourists have little control over where their money is spent. Book with socially responsible companies that take travelers to meet activists and join programs beneficial to locals, such as Global Exchange's Reality Tours (globalexchange.org) and Culture Xplorers (culturexplorers.com). This fall, Reality Tours' two-week tour of Libya includes crafts demonstrations at Berber settlements and discussions with members of the Libyan American Friendship Association about efforts to improve relations with the U.S. Make a connection: North Korea won't allow foreigners to meet and socialize with civilians because the government knows how powerful personal interaction can be. Ask questions, share stories, and express interest in people's lives and cultures; the benefits go far beyond satisfying curiosity. But never push yourself on anyone who appears uncomfortable. It may be dangerous for a local to be seen associating with a foreigner. Spread the word: When you return home, host a night for friends and family to hear about your experiences, or offer to give a talk at your church, school, or community center. Raise donations for school supplies, over-the-counter medications, or other items most needed by the communities you visited. And let others know that the best travel guide is their own conscience.