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An Easy Read on a Rough Road

Sunday, January 2, 2005; Page P04

Where India meets Pakistan, "the border road through Kashmir is open, and free from Pakistani shelling, for the first time in 15 years," Matthew Power says in the latest National Geographic Adventure.

So he sets off on a 1,500-mile motorcycle journey that takes him from punishing heat to the freezing, oxygen-starved summit of Khardung La -- at 18,380 feet, it's "billed as the world's highest road." Power makes the trip so real, you may need to shower off the muck after this read. It's not just the vivid descriptions of "door-handle-clawing rhesus monkeys" and machine-gun nests dotting "the roadside like mile markers" that transport you, but the joy-and-struggle cocktail of discovering a place just back from forbidden.

This ride is not for the meek, though. "I can't decide who are the more pathological drivers, the Muslims, who believe in eternal life, or the Hindus, who believe in reincarnation," Power says. At the highest point, "Buddhist prayer flags, strung along the ridgeline, hum in the wind, shredding and fading in the punishing atmosphere."

But it's not all hardship. At Srinagar he encounters "hundreds of beautiful, ornately carved Victorian houseboats in the middle of the lake, with floating gardens alongside. . . . Sitting on a houseboat porch and drinking a local tea of saffron, cardamom, and almonds, it is easy to forget about all the suffering endured by Kashmiris in 15 years of conflict."

WORTH A FLIP: According to Route 66 magazine ("Preserving the Legend of the Mother Road"), "every man probably ought to see a piece of petrified wood just to say they did it, but most men also have a limit to the amount of petrified wood they can see and still find anything especially interesting about it." Good thing Arizona's Petrified Forest National Park is surrounded by "unadulterated tourist trap glee" such as the Wigwam Motel, where you can snooze in a giant "concrete tepee," or Dinosaur Park, home of "cement-o-saurs" . . . For "the world's largest sea-going wine cellar" (more than 50,000 bottles), Touring & Tasting says hop aboard the Queen Mary 2, where "pricing is modest -- never more than three times wholesale" . . . The Wise Men show up on Jan. 6, so you still have time to beat them to Bethlehem -- Pennsylvania, that is. LongWeekends touts the town, which claims "more existing 18th-century buildings than Williamsburg" and "the oldest continuously operated bookstore in the world" . . .

A charming little B&B on Mars? Not yet. But Skywatch '05 (from Sky & Telescope) suggests Newton Observatory (www.jacknewton.com) near Osoyoos, British Columbia. The "astronomical bed and breakfast" comes with a 16-inch scope housed in a serious-looking dome. Who knows? You might discover a sweet spot for a beach house on the Sea of Tranquility . . . In "Diamonds Are Forever," James Bond was shaken (and perhaps stirred) by "killer acrobats" Bambi and Thumper at the Arthur Elrod house in Palm Springs, Calif. Now, Robb Report Vacation Homes tells us, you can vacation in this 1960s icon -- or choose Frank Sinatra's Twin Palms estate or Sandacre, former weekend retreat of Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio . . .

In Utne, the 20-year-old daughter of a Vietnam vet visits the former war zone, bracing for a "cold response and prepared to do penance for the mistakes of my government." Instead, she finds forgiveness and a desire to forget, fueled by a booming tourist business. Case in point: The Chinese and American War Crimes Museum in Ho Chi Minh City has been renamed the War Remnants Museum because "the government feared it was scaring off some tourists" . . .

No bones about it, "skeleton" is one scary sport. Now Outside reports that you, too, can hurtle "headfirst down ice tracks at up to 80 miles an hour," thanks to "a slew of new recreational" classes. Break a leg!

WORTH A CLIP: Tripe à la Hype? Bon Appetit cites the worst new restaurants in 15 cities across the United States. Fortunately, it also reveals "where the knowing are going" and tips you to the next hot spots -- including Mario Batali's Il Posto, opening this spring in New York.

WORTH A GAWK: How cool is this? Field & Stream names 2005's "finger-numbingest ice-fishing festivals." Join in as 10,000 people "swarm the 4-foot-thick ice" on Minnesota's Leech Lake for the International Eelpout Festival . . . Sex "works and soothes key cycling muscles," Bicycling claims, fostering "stronger, longer bike rides." Oh, so that's how to train for our next two-wheeled trip . . .

-- Gayle Keck

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