MY WORKING LIFE
Travelling off the beaten track isn’t too dangerous, as long as you’re being sensible, says Gareth Johnson, who runs trips to the likes of North Korea, Haiti, Transnistria and Somaliland
Want to go where few have gone before? Get in touch with Gareth Johnson, the extreme tour guide.
How did you get into tours? While I was a teacher in China, I became fascinated with the idea of going to North Korea, but all the options were expensive. I recruited six friends, arranged the visas, designed the itinerary and thought, ‘You know, I reckon I could do this.’
While in North Korea, I got talking to a local contact – we hit it off and I decided I’d start a North Korea travel company. That was eight years ago.
What does your company do differently? One of our tag lines is ‘budget tours to destinations your mother would rather you stayed away from’, while another is ‘group tours for people who hate group tours’. I’m not into normal travel, although some people wouldn’t go to the places I go to if I paid them. I design itineraries for trips that I want to go on and luckily there are a few people out there who want to do them too.
Apart from North Korea, where do you go? This year we did our first trip to Venezuela, which was great – it was fascinating to see that the cult of personality around [late president Hugo] Chavez is still there. We’ve done tours to Haiti, which is a very strange place. One of our specialities is frozen conflict zones: the unrecognised countries of Europe. We do tours to Transnistria between Moldova and the Ukraine; Nagorno-Karabakh between Armenia and Azerbaijan; and Abkhazia between Georgia and Russia. I’m also adding some more.
What’s a typical day for you? I spend most of my time in China, and if I’m not on a trip, I’m usually on a train between one of our offices. There are lots of emails, lots of Skyping, and lots of research for where to go next. Sometimes trips take years to pull off. Our newest trips – to Eritrea and Somaliland – were difficult because Eritrea is what you might call ‘politically interesting’, and Somaliland is another of those unrecognised countries. On a tour, I’m the first one up and the last one to bed, because there’s always stuff to do and people always have questions. You’ve constantly got to be on it in case there are issues.
Such as? The time we got stuck at the Transnistria/ Moldova border as they claimed we hadn’t got the right paperwork. I had to pay a really big bribe in the end… It’s all very well to say, ‘Oh, the clients will understand,’ but if people put their time and money and trust into you, it doesn’t matter if you’re in a crazy place – you’ve still got to deliver.
Why do you think people are attracted to the ‘unusual’ places you travel to? The world is becoming one boring, monotonous place. People wear the same kind of clothes, eat the same fast food... When you look back a few hundred years these same people wanted to go west to explore and do crazy things, and now there’s just less crazy stuff to do. I think our clients are modern-day versions of those folk.
You’ve been to North Korea many times now — what’s the appeal? I have a real affection for the people, they’re some of the most friendly people around, with a really dry sense of humour. I think the country is certainly misunderstood and there are so many stories that just aren’t true – like people being forced to get their hair cut like Kim Jong-un. I think my favourite memory goes right back to the first trip I made there. You’re basically led to believe that the North Koreans don’t talk to anyone, but we went out to the main public park and, in fact, they were all singing and dancing and having a great time, insisting that we join them and share their barbecue.
Who are the friendliest people? Well, the people of North Korea are definitely friendly but they do need to warm to you for a bit first. Some of the friendliest people I’ve met would be in Iran – very welcoming.
Any tips for getting on with locals? Yes – it’s do what they do, even if it seems rude. In China for example, you’ll see someone eating a chicken leg and they’ll just put it on the table when they’ve finished. You do the same. What you view as polite in your country isn’t necessarily viewed as polite in theirs – in China they don’t say thank you if you’re considered friends or family, for instance. Also, don’t talk, listen – especially when it comes to politics.
And if the locals are hostile? Stand your ground – to an extent. But don’t be too aggressive. Generally, people react badly to aggression, but they act even worse to people who are really weak.
Is the world as unsafe as people think it is? No, it’s extremely safe if you’re not stupid. I’ve been robbed a few times but I was in the wrong place at the wrong time and not being very clever. There’s a big difference between the appearance of danger and genuine danger – you just need to know where to draw the line. What I especially love is getting to the airport when you’re leaving a country and you can look back and go, ‘Yeah. I know this place now’.
How about packages to the Moon? Yes! And Mars. And I’m sure it’ll happen – probably not in the next 20 years but I think our kids might get to see them.
Explorers join Gareth (centre) on a visit to Antarctica. The tour guide says his trips are a way to counter the monotony of the modern world