My snapshot of the world’s most peculiar places
Flying north to Orang will illustrate how the North Korean air force is doing, since the airport is shared between the military and the odd, infrequent domestic flight. When I was there it seemed as though the air force hadn’t moved on from the MiG-15s used in the Korean War. It was like the RAF still flying Gloster Meteors, having progressed from Spitfires. Realistically, though, you don’t need to visit the country to see that. A little research on Google Earth will bring up other squadrons of 70-year-old Russian aerial relics.
There’s a long line of bizarre countries lined up behind North Korea, many of them with remarkably few visitors to experience their weirdness. Seventeen of those countries are featured in my books, Bad Lands and Dark Lands. The small number of people who do visit them get not only extraordinary sights, but also quite ordinary ones – all without the jostling crowds of overtourism.
Madain Saleh in Saudi Arabia, for example, is just like the wonderful Petra in Jordan – except you have it all to yourself. Hardly anybody checks out Lawrence of Arabia’s railway either, the one he liked to blow up, so Saudi Arabia is number two on my list. Unlike North Korea, it attracts attention by flaunting its oil wealth rather than bragging about its nuclear capability. Of course it’s a country where blogging can lead to flogging (ask Raif Badawi and his nowimprisoned sister) and women still need a male guardian’s permission to do almost anything, although – amazing progress – they can now get behind the steering wheel of a car.
Many other nations jostle for position in this hit parade of improbable destinations. One of them is Eritrea, dubbed “Africa’s North Korea” in part because of Isaias Afwerki, its president for life, who likes to call up young men for military service with no timeline for when it might be over. As a result, Eritrea has consistently been in the top 10 of the world’s refugee league table, despite having no civil war, external war, famine, natural disaster or anything else to drive people out of the country apart from bad government.
Fortunately, the 20-year standoff between Eritrea (with its shabby Red Sea port of Massawa) and landlocked Ethiopia (in desperate need of a port) has finally been terminated since my visit in March this year, so perhaps things will start to look up for the country’s unhappy citizens.
My overwhelming impression of the capital city, Asmara, was the sheer emptiness of the streets – but maybe tourist visitors will start to arrive and appreciate its wonderful Italian rationalist/futurist/modernist or even Fascist (thank you Mr Mussolini) architecture. The Italians also left an enduring passion for strong coffee made with Heath Robinson-style coffee machines. You can enjoy your double macchiato (or a cold beer) in a bar straight out of a Fellini movie.
Another recent addition to my list of eccentric countries is Turkmenistan. Its capital, Ashgabat, manages to mash up Pyongyang with Dubai and a dash of Las Vegas. Despite the 2006 departure of the country’s presidentuntil-death Saparmurat Niyazov – better known as the Turkmenbashi, the “Father of all the Turks” – he has left his enduring mark on the capital in the form of numerous gold statues of himself. The best known, topping the Arch of Neutrality, used to revolve so he faced, with widespread welcoming arms, the rising sun and then rotated around so he could bid farewell as it set. You might have something similar in Washington DC in a few years’ time, I warn my American friends.
Turkmenistan is another country with huge tourist potential – after all who wouldn’t want to admire all those gold statues? – but a severe reluctance to issue tourist visas. The hotels are ready for them, however, since another characteristic of the countries on my list is an enthusiasm for building lots of hotel rooms when there are no visitors to fill them.
Apart from the gold statues, what else would lure tourists to Ashgabat? Among its absurd monuments and memorials is the world’s largest indoor Ferris wheel, which looks a bit like the London Eye stuffed into a box.
I do like visiting these closed-off nations, in part because you get to see so much – even when you’re not supposed to. Sometimes it is simply reminders of things that have disappeared elsewhere – such as the statues of Lenin that have been spirited away across the old Soviet arc.
In Budapest, Moscow and Sofia they have often ended up in retirement homes for statues, in parks dedicated to forgotten socialist-era art – or commie-kitsch, as it has been described. In 1991, not that long after the collapse of communism, German friends drove me past the old USSR embassy in Berlin. “Guess what’s in that box?” they asked, pointing to a wooden construction in front of the now superannuated embassy building. “A statue of Lenin,” they explained. Leaving the revolutionary leader’s image on display would have suggested that he still had relevance, while removing him completely would have been tantamount to admitting