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

Friday - - Editor’s Letter - young­pi­oneer­

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

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