My snapshot of the world’s most pe­cu­liar places

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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

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