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Visiting Every Country in the World: Some Reflections in 2015

 

By the time I completed my Long Trip, at the age of 27, I had been to more than half of the countries of the world that existed at that time. By the end of a Canadian diplomatic career that spanned thirty years, until the summer of 2011, I had been to all but eight.

Until my retirement, I refused to go to a country if I had to go on an organized tour..That continued until September 2012 when I celebrated my 59th birthday by arriving in the fourth last country, North Korea with Koryo Tours. In September-October 2013, I went to Turkmenistan, also with Koryo. The final two were Eritrea in December 2014, and finally Mauritania in January 2015. At the age of 61, I have now visited every country in the world.

It is a slightly odd feeling. When I first started travelling, I was very interested in going to other countries and the love of travel and pouring over the National Geographic Atlas defined the political world as it evolved over the last forty years.

Around twenty years ago, in my early 40s, shortly after my 1992-1993 Trip Around the World, I first made a list of those that I had not visited. Back then, there were 37 countries and seven territories left. A few more, like Montenegro, Kosovo, Timor Leste and South Sudan, which did not exist in the mid-1990s have since been recognized. Mine has always been a personal list  based for a couple of decades upon entries in the Canadian consular booklet “Bon voyage…but”, so my current list is 226.

The “tightest list” and most unambiguous list would be current members of the United Nations which is now 1993.  The Travelers Century Club and, more recently Most Traveled People website have come up with their own lists. TCC list 311. MTP is now up to 875.

At least for me, to follow these more extensive lists to their logical conclusion, you end up spending a long time on boats chasing after uninhabited or almost uninhabited rocks and small islands in the world’s oceans, something which while appealing for some, would add a distortion to why I enjoy traveling to new places.  In the end, it has always been a personal goal rather than a “competitive” one, based on a list compiled by someone else.

For me, the “country list” was not so much an end in itself, but a vague, if structured, means to an end. Perhaps that is the reason it took more than forty years to complete. I almost always wanted to spend time in a place and get to know it rather than simply arrive, then leave quickly to “tick it off a list”. It provided a National Geographic Atlas coloured sense of direction of what new place on our planet that i might consider visiting next. Fundamentally, it was the human connections just about anywhere that constituted the greatest highlight. For many years it has been quite enjoyable selecting the most interesting not yet visited country I could think of, and then go there when I had a vacation from work. During long winters in Ottawa, when I was working at Canada’s foreign ministry headquarters, taking a couple of weeks off to visit another new island in the Caribbean was a positive motivation.

I am glad, however, to now “retire the category”. Exploring recently opened northeastern parts of India and border areas of Myanmar, spending some time in parts of the Arctic and Antarctica, have been more personally rewarding as travel experiences than some of the remaining countries that I visited in the last few years.

I see it less as a completion, though in one sense it is, than as a transition. That same sense of wonder and desire to explore new place as well as return to new favourites, is still there. My curiosity about going to new places on our small planet continues and I hope and expect it will still be as fun and as motivating for as long as I have the health and ability to do so.

With best wishes to all who visit my website, and the best of luck in fulfilling whatever dream or goal that you set for yourself.

 

Ethiopia Rising

 

In November and December of 2011, I did a five week trip to the Horn of Africa, visiting Ethiopia, Somaliland, Djibouti, South Sudan and Sudan. It was a memorable and exciting trip.

 

I visited Ethiopia first in 1972 at the age of 18, on my initial solo trip to Africa. This was during the late stages of the reign of Ethiopia’s last emperor, Haile Selassie. I then visited a colleague and friend posted to Addis Ababa in 1989 when I was posted to Lusaka, Zambia. This was during the late stages of the Marxist regime in power at that time, led by Colonel Miriam Mengistu. Colonel Mengistu was later to become a neighbour when I was working in Zimbabwe. In 1991, Robert Mugabe granted him a place of exile in Harare in the same Non-Aligned-Movement Conference housing development where CIDA had established some offices. My third visit was last November.

 

Addis Ababa and Ethiopia have changed dramatically in the last twenty years. For a country which once epitomized land degradation, suffering, famine and starvation, there is a palpable sense of growth, dynamism and rising living standards. Infrastructural improvements are visible throughout the country.

 

When I first arrived, after picking up visas in Addis, I headed with a friend to Dire Dawa, Harar and Jijiga and then across the border into Somaliland. When we returned to Ethiopia from Djibouti, I went up to Lalibela. I then went to South Sudan and Sudan and returned to Addis. Finally, I went across to Lake Tana, Gondar and then spent several days trekking up in the Simien Mountains. Ethiopia is emerging as an increasingly popular adventure destination.

 

The influence of China is rising significantly throughout Africa, and Ethiopia is no exception. The Chinese are heavily involved in the infrastructural improvements underway. In fact, the Ethiopian government is following the Chinese model of a repressive political system that, nevertheless, achieves high levels of economic growth.

 

The rock-hewn churches of Lalibela are among the most impressive archaeological sites in the world. Built around 1000 years ago, it seems scarcely possible that these could have been constructed without divine intervention. Christianity has been a strong influence here since the fourth century AD and is widely practiced throughout the country.

 

Harar was a fascinating city, unlike any other in Ethiopia, with its own distinct culture and was vaguely reminiscent of Fez. Jijiga and eastern Ethiopia are ethnic Somali areas bearing more similarities to Somalia than anywhere else in Ethiopia. Lake Tana is a beautiful area, famed for its painted churches and monasteries, mainly accessible by boat tours from Dire Dawa, and for the nearby Blue Nile Falls.

 

Gondar is a particularly dynamic and prosperous city with a fascinating history. North of Gondar are the Simien Mountains with a topography like a scaled-up and slightly more fertile “one-sided” Grand Canyon. Access is controlled by the Simien Mountains National Park headquarters in Debark. My experience of the trek was that it was haphazardly organized, though it was more a matter of inconvenience for me rather than real hardship, and the scenery and topography more than made up for it. While trekking there, I climbed to the summit of Imet Gogo at 3926 metres, the highlight of my sojourn in the mountains.

 

Ethiopia is a very inexpensive country in which to travel, with a great and distinctive cuisine, a top-notch airline easing the logistics of moving around the country, a rapidly improving tourist infrastructure and, at least in my experience, a welcoming population. I personally think it is one of the most interesting countries in the world, and there is still much of the country that I have not seen.

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A Pilgrimage to Isolation: The Juan Fernandez Islands

 

Islands have always held a special appeal for me. Isolated and lightly visited islands even more so.  A few of them are among my favourite destinations on this planet. Fernando de Noronha was one. Easter Island another. Also the Galapagos, Saba, Mayreau, Svalbard, and the Seychelles. There are a few others that also beckon that I have not yet visited: Socotra, Penrhyn, Pitcairn. On this last trip I made it to two others that had long fascinated me…South Georgia and the Juan Fernandez Archipelago. I will write  about South Georgia in another post.

Chile has two isolated inhabited island groups in the Pacific far from any other place. One is by far the better known – Easter Island. The other is Robinson Crusoe Island in the Juan Fernandez Archipelago, located about 600 kilometers in the Pacific Ocean west from Valparaiso. Unlike Easter Island, world famous and easily accessible by jet aircraft, flying to Juan Fernandez is usually by a small 8 seater aircraft. Flights do not go every day and wind conditions are such that flights are often cancelled. Thus it costs almost twice as much (more than US$1000) to go half the distance from Santiago, Chile. But these gorgeous islands are definitely worth it.

The flight from Santiago takes a bit under two hours, but the arrival in the small plane is dramatic, plunging down sharply to a small thin airstrip on the southeast corner of the island. From the airstrip, you leave your luggage behind and then walk twenty to thirty minutes along a dirt road  down to a dock in a bay on the northern part of the island.  We waited by the dock for shortly under an hour while being serenaded by a few hundred seals. My flight to the island had been delayed by a day as the waves and winds during the previous 48 hours were too intense. Perhaps because of this, instead of taking the low rise boat, all passengers were transported on a Chilean military boat.  The choppy boat ride to the only settlement of San Juan Bautista took us a little under one hour. Our luggage was to arrive after another hour by the low rise boat.

Isla Robinson Crusoe is a stunningly beautiful island, reminiscent of a temperate climate Moorea with sharp sculpted green peaks forming a backdrop behind the town.  The total population is under 900, all located in the one settlement of San Juan Bautista. The village was devastated by a tsunami caused by an 8.2 Richter earthquake on February 22, 2010, killing seventeen inhabitants and destroying much of the town near the water line. At a small fast food restaurant run by a local woman in her 50s, I listened to her poignant  recollection of that terrible day. She had been running a larger more upscale restaurant with her husband and had an eleven year old son. Both of them died when the tsunami struck the island.  She has carefully preserved photos of her late husband and son, along with a number of photos of the restaurant they had  built together.  Since the tsunami, the Chilean government has invested a lot of money into reconstructing the town. While there remains some minor signs of the extensive damage caused by the tsunami, the recovery is almost complete, with the most obvious sign being that the buildings along the waterfront are obviously new.

Daniel Defoe’s famous book “Robinson Crusoe”, one of my favourites as a child,  is based upon the real life story of Alexander Selkirk. Selkirk  was dropped on this island in 1704 after a dispute with the captain of the ship on which he was sailing. He subsequently spent four years and four months totally solo, living off the limited resources of the island while waiting for rescue, which finally occurred in early 1709. A Wikipedia search will give  a somewhat fuller account of his life, but for me the most amazing thing is that he survived his time there completely cut off from the rest of the world due to his dedication and resourcefulness  There are a number of hiking trails on the island. The most famous is the trail up from San Juan Bautista to Mirador Alejandro Selkirk, the lookout point at a top of the ridge at 560 metres above sea level giving views over both sides of the island where Selkirk would go up each day and where he waited for years for his eventual rescue. For me, it was a powerful pilgrimage moment and a tribute to isolation and to the resilience of the human spirit.

In many ways, I am in awe of the marvel of technology within the last couple of decades which now allows anybody anywhere in the world with access to the Internet the ability, as just one example, to read this blog within one minute of my publishing it. Yet the hike up to Selkirk’s Lookout also evoked for me the more timeless aspects of this amazing planet and our place in it: geographic isolation, the physical beauty of our natural world, the fragility of the human condition, and to resilience in the face of adversity, both in the 18th century and the 21st century.

 

 

 

 

Mauritania: Zone Jaune ou Orange

 

Mauritania was the last country in the world I had not yet visited. When it came to the last dozen or so countries, the reason to have left it this comparatively late usually related to the difficulty in obtaining a visa or concerns about personal security. Colleagues who had worked in Mauritania, based in Senegal, had described how starting in 2007, there had been a serious decline in security. Previously, a country considered to have been one of the safest in Africa, became increasingly dangerous.

Two of my former diplomatic colleagues, Bob Fowler and Louis Guay, were kidnapped (in Niger) and held by Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in northern Mali for 134 days in 2010. With the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, and the series of ghastly and barbaric beheadings of innocent western hostages, one could get the impression that all of North Africa, the Sahel, the Middle East and West Asia, as far as Pakistan, is now a part of the world one would be better off to avoid.

But when I drilled down to see exactly what had prompted the alarm for Mauritania, the incidents, albeit horrific, were dated in time. There were four French citizens murdered in 2007. Spanish hostages were taken by AQIM on the Nouadhibou to Nouakchott highway in 2009.  The uprising in Libya and the rise of Islamic extremism in neighbouring northern Mali prompted an international intervention led by the French in 2012. In response, Mauritania  set up a series of security checkpoints on major roads. There were eight between Nouakchott and Chinguetti. I was told by other travelers that the road from Nouadhibou and south to Rosso have similar systems. Biometric identification at the airport: fingerprints, eye identification and photos (somewhat slow and ponderous) are required before getting your visa on arrival.

Each country has its own consular advisories (for Canada see voyage.gc.ca). For Mauritania, France has, by far, the most extensive network and most up to date sources. When I visited, about half the country under the French Foreign Ministry website (for France see diplomatie.gouv.fr ) was listed as under Zone Orange (Avoid all but essential travel) and the other half, including part of the Adrar, as  Zone Rouge (Avoid all travel). The two lower levels are Zone Vert (exercise normal security precautions), and Zone Jaune (exercise a high degree of caution).

Shortly before going, I checked a number of travel websites, and sophisticated travelers accounts suggested that, while one should always verify with local sources, at least the major touristed sites (Banque d’Arguin and the Adrar), and the capital of Nouakchott, were reasonably safe to visit. I booked my accommodation for Nouakchott in advance at the Maison Jeloua, run by a French woman, Oliva Llose. Prior to arrival in Mauritania, I asked her directly about security and  the advisability of traveling into the Adrar. Olivia responded that AQIM had never been in the Adrar, and that travel there, in early 2015, was certainly safe.

Travel around Mauritania in the limited areas I visited (Nouackhott and the Adrar) was not only safe compared to say, Miami, or Jamaica, or Peru, but very safe compared to almost anywhere. Although organized tourism has declined precipitously (since travel insurance will not cover those who choose to go where consular advisories to avoid non-essential travel to a country or above are in effect), individual travelers continue to visit in limited numbers, at least recently, without problems.

That said, research is important and it is always useful and very important to reverify and to get the best local knowledge once you arrive. At Maison Jeloua, I met a French woman in her late 60s on her 11th trip to Mauritania. I also met an Italian man on his seventh visit, much of which was spent with nomadic Moors, camping well in the Red Zone of eastern Mauritania. I also met, in Chinguetti, a 19 year old Chinese woman who had made her way from Niger, across through Mali and Timbuktu and who had crossed the border near Nema. (I personally would consider that route highly inadvisable).

Nouakchott, Mauritania’s capital, is a totally forgettable dusty African city. It is a useful transit point to elsewhere in the country, but otherwise has very little else to offer. The city was fairly relaxed, though I was warned that there were thieves and pickpockets in the central market. My interest was to take a brief sojourn into the Adrar, Mauritania’s most dramatic desert region. I went to the oases of Terjit, Atar and Chinguetti, with a local guide from the area. I did not make it to the easternmost oasis of Ouadane.

What a pleasure it was to visit, and to get an insight into the unique world of the Moors of the desert in the westernmost part of the Sahara. Terjit is a jewel. It is a small desert oasis with water seeping down through a cleft in the mountains protected from the sun by the deep valley cleft and palm trees overhead. A small creek with clear water ran through the oasis. Atar, though less dramatic, also has the desert ambiance. The third town was Chinguetti, now declared a UNESCO world heritage site. There was a certain sense of sadness that a low key and gentle place, welcoming and hospitable to visitors was now virtually abandoned, at least in part  due to the consular advisories which continue to remain in place.

Slightly beyond Chinguetti one arrives at the archetypal sand dunes of the Sahara.  Watching the sunset over the dunes beyond the outskirts of the town with some camels nearby is a timeless visual spectacle of this corner of the northwest Sahara. In Chinguetti, there are small libraries of ancient books, recounting the history of the Adrar over the centuries. There are still options for accommodation, though most are now somewhat fraying around the edges, as the modest tourist traffic which once sustained them, is now a fraction of what it was a decade ago.

 

 

 

Inside Isolated Eritrea

 

Eritrea is one of a handful of countries, outside of the breakup of the USSR and Yugoslavia, to have achieved its independence within the last 25 years.

 

In its initial years of  independence from Ethiopia, recognized internationally in 1993, it was widely admired for being progressive, egalitarian and a model of self-reliant development. That changed in the late 1990s, the key factor being a war over a border dispute with Ethiopia.

 

Over the last fifteen years it has become increasingly repressive, isolated, and has earned to sobriquet as the “North Korea of Africa”. Reporters Without Borders now places it dead last on the Press Freedom Index, below North Korea. Like Belarus, it has become one of the handful of less well know “pariah states” of the international community. NGOs have been expelled, UN peacekeepers were ordered out of the country, and diplomats movements outside Asmara restricted, even in access to consular cases, flouting international law.

 

Travel to the country, relatively open and unrestricted in the 1990s, has become increasingly difficult and bureaucratic. I failed on my first two attempts to obtain a visa, only succeeding on my third time. This was the most protracted and difficult process for any country I have ever visited. Once inside, additional permits are needed to travel anywhere outside Asmara. More than  80 percent of the country remains completely off limits. Air links to the rest of the world have dwindled. The only land frontier open  is with Sudan, itself hardly a welcoming destination for prospective visitors. There were only a small handful of other travelers I saw in the country and only two outside Asmara…..but yet…..

 

Once inside it remains an immensely friendly, charming and attractive country, although infrastructure has frayed around the edges.

 

Asmara at 2300 metres above sea level, is a very pleasant “time warp” jewel with a spring-like climate. It is among the most appealing cities anywhere in Africa, and an absolute delight for those who manage to jump the hurdles to get there. The closest, albeit imperfect parallel I can think of…organized, quiet, light traffic, threadbare faded colonial elegance, clean air, tidy streets, pleasant low-key interpersonal interactions…might be to a mid-sized city in Cuba. Despite its isolation and an economy in tatters, visitors are treated well. Eritrea was an Italian colony from 1892 to 1941 and the residue of this period still predominates. This is a city of art deco architecture, macchiatos, pasta and pizza. The city is filled with atmospheric cafes, particularly along the main drag of Harnet Avenue.

 

In our time, we managed to get to almost all of the limited areas that are open to foreign visitors.

 

Keren was about 90 kilometres away and a two hour drive away. Its atmosphere is very different from Asmara and the town shows influence from neighbouring Sudan. Visiting the camel market is a significant highlight. A major battle was fought here during the Second World War between the Allied forces led by Britain, and the Italians between January and March 1941, marking the most important battle that saw Britain take over control of Eritrea and Ethiopia. There is an Italian war grave cemetery along with a Commonwealth War Grave, in separate locations, commemorating the soldiers who lost their lives during the conflict.

The drop from the highland to the Red Sea coast is dramatic. There are now two roads. One was constructed in the last decade about thirty kilometres to the west of the old road and is in very good condition. However, it is practically unused. Why it was constructed at all is a mystery to me as it passes through no population centres, and the existing main road between Asmara and Massawa is in good condition and is hardly over utilized.

 

The port town of Massawa in recent years has slid into a slightly surreal semi-ghost town. In 1990, near the end of the conflict, the Ethiopians bombed the port, destroying about one-third of the buildings of the old town, none of which have been restored.  Even more dramatic has been the gradual abandonment of the city over the last decade.  It is a bit like stumbling upon a “down at the heels” Zanzibar-like port town along America’s Route 66, with a few bars and small hotels remaining amidst the general abandonment. We stayed at the Grand Dahlak, a grandiose and impressive hotel  (the best I saw in Eritrea) maintaining its elegant facade as the rest of the town slides ever more into a ghost town. Some sixty kilometres away are the Axumite ruins of Adulis,  with some excavated ruins of a “port” that is now seven kilometres away from the sea.

 

Our last destination was to Adi Keyh and Qohaito. These are the highest villages in Eritrea at around  2450 metres and 2700 metres respectively. Qohaito is situated on a high plateau and has a few excavated ruins dating back some 1500 to 2000 years…..  This high plateau ends abruptly in a gigantic canyon cascading down dramatically towards the Red Sea. It is a jaw-dropping vista and  is easily the peer of the better known topography of the Simien Mountains of Ethiopia. There is also prehistoric rock art accessible by hiking a mule track along the edge of the gorge to an overhanging cave where drawn images of animals, including lions and camels, painted red are  carved into the stone. The steep trail hugging the edge of the precipice into the canyon is not for the faint of heart.

 

It marked a fitting end to this fascinating, if isolated country.

Nicaragua Today

I recently returned to Nicaragua. My only previous visit was towards the end of the Long Trip in June-July 1980. Then, the left-wing Sandinistas had overthrown the Somoza dictatorship less than one year previously. Damage from the war was still widely visible in the country, as was evidence of the devastating earthquake that destroyed Managua in December 1972.

My most vivid recollection of that time was that most of the Sandinistas on the streets and at checkpoints, dressed in green fatigues and carrying weapons, were teenagers. In Managua there were also a fair number of other backpackers and international visitors, later dubbed the “Sandalistas”. Having missed the Cuban Revolution, here was a chance to see another leftist revolution unfold, and either observe it firsthand or give some support. In retrospect, it may have been the last extension of the leftist/Marxist philosophy during the Cold War before it all started unraveling.

From an outsiders perspective, at least in my case in my mid-20s and moderately sympathetic, the Sandinista revolution all seemed sincere enough. A few of us went to see a movie “Commandante Che: Amigo”. The most obvious sign of change was a major push for extending literacy. Signs throughout the country would read “Si tu eres Cristiano, alfabetisar su hermano” (If you are Christian, teach your brother how to read). A young man with glasses and a moustache, Daniel Ortega, was the new face and leader of the revolution. Back then, I stopped only in Granada, spent about ten days in Managua, and then stopped briefly in Leon, before continuing up to Honduras.

Coming back to Nicaragua now made me think of what it might have been like to visit Western Europe in, say, the late 1950s. Visible damage from the civil war years, (which continued for another decade throughout the 1980s as the USA, under Ronald Reagan, supported and funded the Contra rebels), is now gone. The country is relatively poor and inexpensive, and at least to my initial surprise, has become very popular with visitors.

Perhaps its popularity should not have come as a surprise. Nicaragua is significantly less expensive than the Central America countries to the south, but is not plagued with the extent of crime and security problems found in the countries further north. I met many other travelers who had made the same calculation. Infrastructure is improving, particularly in the southwest corner of the country which is the most popular area for visitors. Boutique hotels are being opened, “voluntourism” is encouraged, and options for fair trade, eco-friendly, small scale visits to coffee plantations etc. are becoming increasingly common.

On this trip I spent some time in the colonial city of Granada, less than an hour away from the international airport.  Other than enjoying the colonial ambience, I also went out to Las Isletas, a string of small islands in the lake not far from Granada and walked around the active volcano of Masaya. I stayed at the charming Mombacho Ecolodge, not far from Granada  half way up Volcan Mombacho which dominates the skyline from Granada. I later went to Isla de Ometepe, a dramatic and charming twin-peaked island in Lago Colciboca (I still prefer Lago Nicaragua), the largest lake in the western hemisphere between the Great Lakes and Lake Titicaca. The Pacific Coast is also becoming more popular with its touristic apex around the town of San Juan del Sur. I opted to stay further north at the superb beach of Playa Popoyo. Most famous among international surfers, it remains a quiet little paradise, with wide beaches extending for kilometres in either direction.

The Corn Islands (Big Corn and Little Corn) are a typical but very low-key Caribbean paradise, very different from the rest of Nicaragua and predominantly English speaking with that classic Caribbean lilt “dat inspired de name of dis website”. They are located about 65 kilometres off the Atlantic coast from the port city of Bluefields. The flight lands at Big Corn Island. To arrive at Little Corn Island, it is pain before pleasure. The “panga” ride in an open boast last about forty bone-shaking  minutes over 16 kilometers of often rough water. Near the front you get a more violent bashing, near the back more of a soaking, though most of the passengers managed to take cover under a green tarpaulin. Little Corn is the more popular island for visitors. It has no roads, no vehicles and is only three square kilometres in size. Although it is somewhat more expensive than the mainland, by Caribbean island standards the costs are  very reasonable. The diving was excellent.

Finally I went up to the mountainous coffee country around Matagalpa and Jinotega, driving north from Managua. This was the area from which the Sandinista revolution was launched and in which the battle between the Contra rebels and the Sandinistas continued for more than a decade after I left. Now, more than two decades later, nearly all signs of that are are gone and the area prides itself as the coffee heart of the country.

I met more than a few Canadians on this trip, escaping part of a particularly tough winter back home, in this charming country. The one real reminder of my journey to Nicaragua 34 years ago, were the political posters that I saw  throughout the country of Daniel Ortega, back to being President of the country since 2006. He is now flatteringly portrayed as somewhat older and fuller in face. It was an interesting connection to a bygone revolutionary age.

 

 

 

 

Dominica: Nature Island

 

Dominica is a small but gorgeous island in the eastern Caribbean, just south of Guadeloupe and north of Martinique. Its main virtue, at least from my perspective,  is that it does not have a large airport, or particularly impressive beaches, by Caribbean standards. But it does have superb diving and, in my assessment,  the most dramatic and spectacular scenery in the entire Caribbean. The official moniker of the tourism bureau: “Nature Island” hardly does justice to this verdant and spectacular island. As a fellow traveler said to me in 1986 as I was to embark on my first visit to the island “On Dominica, the gorges are gorgier and the jungles are junglier than anywhere else”.

The island is comparatively inexpensive by the standards of the Eastern Caribbean. While there are some reasonable beaches, particularly around Calibishie in the north, they are nothing special compared to other nearby islands. It is the lush interior of the island that distinguishes this island from others in the Caribbean. Given the absence of flat land for a full sized airport. only small planes from nearby islands are able to land. Dominica is also accessible via ferry boats from Guadeloupe and Martinique. The slightly more difficult logistics for arrival, and the lack of glorious strands of sand synonymous with so many other Caribbean islands, means that comparatively few travelers make it here. It thus makes the experience even more special for those who do.

The capital, Roseau, is a funky, lively, friendly and fairly noisy Caribbean town. Yet shortly after sunset, the bustle quickly ends and virtually everything in the town, save for a few restaurants, shuts down. Things get a bit livelier if a cruise ship calls in port for a day, but otherwise there are few other visitors, and the ambience is reminiscent of what the Caribbean must have been like fifty years ago.

I was interested in doing the demanding seven hour trek to the  Valley of Desolation and Boiling Lake. It is within Morne Trois Pitons National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site. This is a trek not to be underestimated, although the vast majority of travelers succeed in making it all the way to the final point. The Valley of Desolation has a series of fumaroles and steam vents. The end point is at a viewpoint above Boiling Lake, the second largest in the world after one in New Zealand, where burbling gas splatters along the surface of the grey lake. We had a mixture of overcast and rainy weather during our trek.

I stayed at the oddly named Wotten Waven, a small community due east of Roseau in the interior of the island and at the edge of the entry into the park. I stayed a a gorgeous if simple lodge called “Le Petit Paradis” where Julie, the local owner, delights in providing guests with her special rum punch concoction know as “The Bullet”. Nearby are a series of hot springs and pools, run down and crumbling, but charming all the same. The village is surrounded by the lushest rainforest in the entire  Caribbean. Trafalgar Falls is not too far away. This really is a magical experience and one of my favourite places in the entire Caribbean.

Another highlight is that Dominica has the last group of indigenous Carib Indians remaining in the Caribbean. Carib Country is a reserved area about two thirds of the way up the Atlantic Coast of the island. We stayed at a local guesthouse, run by a Carib. My experience was rather underwhelming, and slightly sad. There are a few Caribs selling mediocre trinkets along the side of the road. The owner of the guesthouse also talked about the difficulty in organizing the community to defend their interests and opined that the government did not really care about the future of the last remaining indigenous people. He also decried the short term mentality of many of his fellow Caribs in that they were prepared to concede long term rights and prosperity from shorter term immediate economic gain.

Calibishie along the north coast not far from Portsmouth is one of the better places to be based with several options for accommodation, and most of Dominica’s better beaches are nearby, if not always easy of access. It is primarily a fishing village and has a nice relaxed vibe.

Renting a compact 4×4, for about $50 to $60 per day, is a good way to see the island. Many of the roads are extremely steep and winding (not for the faint of heart!) and driving from one place to another takes considerably longer than one might expect in this comparatively compact island. It is one of my favourite lightly discovered jewels in the entire Caribbean.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Turkmenistan Today: Las Vegas and Abu Dhabi meet Pyongyang

Slightly more than ten years after I visited the four other “Stans” of the former Soviet Union, I went to the last former Soviet Republic that I had not visited, Turkmenistan. I went with Koryo Tours, the group with whom I went to North Korea one year previously.

In some ways, Turkmenistan has become the marginally more visitor friendly Saudi Arabia of the former USSR. While not hostile to visitors officially, the reality is that natural gas and oil wealth make any income derived from tourism marginal. Therefore the country seeks to limit outside influences and does it on its own terms. Its slightly bizarre model of massive resorts on the Caspian Sea resembles the sort of group tourism favoured by the USSR from the 1960s until the end of the 1980s.

Of all the countries of the former Soviet Union, Turkmenistan makes independent travel the most difficult. Some travelers manage to visit the country cheaply on transit visa, but for the most part you enter on a tourist visa accompanied by a local tour company. In our case, Koryo, working through their local company, Ayan Tours, faxed Letters of Introduction issued by the State Migration Service of Turkmenistan.This allowed me to board the plane in Istanbul and obtain a visa on arrival at Ashgabat airport.

The capital of the country, Ashgabat , is an extraordinary and almost surreal place. As natural gas and oil money flows massively into a country with a total population of barely six million, the capital has been transformed into something oversized yet vaguely familiar (Washington?, Abu Dhabi?, Las Vegas? Pyongyang?) but also unique. There is a monumentalism at work here, perhaps only paralleled in the Gulf States. There are literally hundreds of oversized marble buildings, massive Ministry buildings, the largest, and probably the only, indoor ferris wheel, extensive parks and monuments in the desert, dozens of fountains, a long cable car up a mountain close to the Iranian border and elaborate mosques. More building are under construction. What is missing, when visiting these sites, even in comparison to Abu Dhabi, or Dubai, or Las Vegas, is people. The city is kept immaculately clean.

Perhaps the greatest draw and most remarkable site in the country is the large flaming gas crater at Darvaza, slightly under a four hour drive north of Ashgabat. It is the result of an industrial accident in the  early1970s. The former Soviet Union is full of environmental disasters. Chernobyl, the Aral Sea, and the toxic waste ponds of the Abseron Peninsula, now in Azerbaijan, are a few that come to mind. But this flaming gas crater is something extraordinary and even appealing. There are three craters within about a thirty kilometre distance. One of the craters now has no flames, only a pool of water at the bottom. The second still has a few flames at the bottom, and the third and most spectacular is a representation on earth of Dante’s Inferno. Impressive enough during the day, the kilometre wide crater full of flames it is even more dramatic a night. We camped overnight a few hundred meters from the lip of the cater.

Later we went by air to the northern town of Dashoguz, then went to the ancient ruins of Konya Urgench. The ruins are spread over a fairly large area. The highlights include a 72 metre minaret and a few building spread over a large area. The lavish largesse bestowed on the capital is far less in evidence in Dashoguz, although there are still a few nice buildings. Even more stressed are some of the villages in the Karakum desert that we visited en route to Darvaza. Here the juxtaposition between Ashgabat’s increasing opulence and the traditionally austere life of Turkmen surviving in the Karakum desert is thrown into high relief.

The current President, the second since Turkmenistan became independent,  is Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow. His photo is ubiquitous, for example, an all Turkmenistan Airways flights. Various magazines have him riding a horse, on a mountain bicycle, giving earnest speeches. Yet veneration of a leader is hardly unusual by global standards and it is certainly less extreme and unusual in comparison to North Korea. National dress is worn by most women, with only a small minority wearing western-style clothing. In this respect, it reminds me more of Bhutan.

In a world where the effects of globalization seem to be penetrating ever more remote areas, Turkmenistan still has the feeling of a place apart, and which is modernizing on its own terms, and which is preserving its Turkmen identity. That makes it, at least for me, a place special and apart.

 

Mongolia: Ulaan Bataar and Into the Gobi

Following our train journey out from Pyongyang to Beijing, we overnighted in a hotel not far from the airport and left the next morning to Ulaan Bataar (UB) capital of Mongolia.

A former work colleague of mine, Greg Goldhawk, is now Canada’s Ambassador to Mongolia and he kindly offered us a place to stay at his modest official residence in the dowtown core. It was great to enjoy his, and his wife Sharon’s, hospitality during our days in UB.

By late September, Mongolia is already starting to get cold. Windy morning temperatures of below freezing in UB sugggested heading further north and into higher altitude might not be advisable. So instead of heading to the mountains of Uvs aimag (the Mongolian term for a province or state) in the far west of the country near the border of Kazakhstan, which had been the initial plan, we decided to head south, deep into the Gobi.

We booked our route through Tseren tours whose sub logo”Off the Map Adventures” is very accurate.

There is a striking juxtaposition between driving through gridlock and the constant traffic jams inside UB and the rest of the country. The route to the south starts close to the airport. Ten or fifteen minutes of easier movement and shortly later, just as you get beyond the edge of town you are in the wilderness with almost no other vehicles in sight. There are the occasional buildings over the next thirty minutes. Then you are in the genuine remote grasslands of Mongolia.

Isolated yet stark primeval places on earth still exist. Among Tibetan nomads in Qinghai and the Changthang, Canadian Inuit in the High Arctic, some very isolated estancias in Patagonia, farms on the edge of the desert in Australia, Tuareg encampments deep in the Sahara, are places fundamentally defined by isolation, resilience and remoteness. The Gobi in southern Mongolia and those who live there are yet another expression of this phenomenon. Throughout our days we would go long distances on unimproved tracks with either no signs of habitation or only an occasional ger (the Mongolian term for a yurt) encampment visible in the distance.

Late in the afternoon or just around dark, we would stop at what appeared to be a random encampment. Our guide would go in and speak for a few minutes, and then we were usually given a place to stay. There would usually be a separate ger for us to sleep, and the family ger, where we would be served some fermented mare’s milk and be given a simple dinner. The families that hosted us were invariably polite, low-key and hospitable. None spoke any English or French.

Our route south of Ulaan Bataar took us the the aimags of Dundgov and Omnogov. Even though we were heading south at the end of September and beginning of October, night-time temperatures still were well below freezing. Highlights included the Flaming Cliffs of Bayanzag, which became famous in the 1920’s for the rich number of dinosaur bones and eggs found in the area.  Another highlight was Khongoryn Els, among the most spectacular and dramatic sand dunes found in Mongolia.  The largest dunes are more than 300 metres high and it is a fairly tough slog slithering up the sand dunes to the top. We spent two nights in a ger encampment at the base of the sand dunes.  It took well over 1 1/2 hours to get to the top. The trip down took less than fifteen minutes. Khongoryn Els was the only place on our trip outside of UB where we met any other travelers. Sitting in the ger in the afternoon with the door open and the sight of Bactrian camels just outside with the backdrop of sand dunes was most enjoyable.

The other highlights were Yolyn Am and Dugany Am, mountain areas with great opportunities for hiking. The initial entry into Dugany Am from the south went through a high gorge that at its narrowest was barely wide enough to allow the jeep to get through. We hiked in the mountains over a couple of days, based in a ger encampment at the northern edge of Dugany Am. The final day we drove to Omnogov’s aimag capital of Dalanzadgad. Like all of the the few towns and villages we passed during our journey, Dalanzagad was stark with a limited amount of commercial activity. It lacks the globalized dynamic of the bustling capital of Ulaan Bataar. It is little wonder, therefore, that the capital continues to attract rural Mongolians. Almost one half of Mongolia’s population in this vast country, now reside in the capital.

Mongolia is a great and amazing country. Unlike controlled North Korea, it beckons the adventurous traveler to explore the place on whatever terms you wish.  Check it out….

 

Deep Inside North Korea

North Korea imagesIn September 2012, I spent ten days in North Korea. Until this trip, I had always waited for a country to allow independent unrestricted travel before going. This strategy worked for China, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Albania and the countries of the former Soviet Union, among others. Yet thirty years after I briefly visited South Korea en route to recently opened China, North Korea still keeps the phalanx up. So, for the first time in my life, I decided to enter a country with a tour group.

David Edwards on ICI Radio-Canada - May 31-2013

I was recently interviewed on ICI Radio-Canada about my trip to North Korea (French interview)

I wanted a comprehensive experience, so I selected an itinerary with Koryo Tours that maximized time outside Pyongyang and skipped the most visited sites of Nampho, Kaesong and the DMZ. It was described as “Remote and Unique Korea”. We only spent a small amount of time in Pyongyang. Most of our experience was in the mountains of Kumgang, Paekdu and Chilbo, with some additional urban experiences in Wonsan, Hamhung and Chongjin, cities along Koreas’s east coast, along with a handful of other venues. We traveled several hundred kilometres by bus throughout the country, along with chartering a plane to go to Mt. Paekdu, and then to Orang military airport, the access point for Chongjin.

The entire experience for me, albeit fairly controlled, was fascinating and positive.

My biggest initial surprise was Pyongyang. From its setting and physical location, it is one of my favourite cities in Asia. Admittedly, I was seeing the city and the country during September when the weather and vegetation was at its most gentle and bucolic. As 2012 was the 100th birthday of the birth of the first President Kim Il Sung, the city has seen significant recent infrastructural improvements. New skyscrapers dot Pyongyang’s skyline. The relative lack of traffic and extensive parklands, the handful of decent restaurants and the Taedong River bisecting the city, all made for a positive impression.

Another surprise of North Korea was that even in the countryside, and as mentioned we traveled long distances inside the country, it was notably and visibly less impoverished than I expected. Even the grimmer industrial cities of Hamhung and Chongjin reminded me of the “socialist drab” architecture of Poland and East Germany in the 1970’s, with a slight oriental twist.

North Korea, visually, seems to have achieved the ideal Marxist worker – peasant communist society as it might have been envisaged by the famous philosopher at that time. Yet this rural Marxist version of communism looks as if it was set in the late 1800s and then stopped. There is almost no visible interim technology between the MiG jets flying overhead on the east coast, and the ubiquitous one speed bicycles that most Koreans used to get to work. Virtually all agricultural work was still being done by hand, peasants harvesting rice with small scythes.

Although a North Korean visit is controlled, the unrolling of our visit was rather normal for a standard tour. Our guides from the North Korean-based Korea International Travel Company who met us on arrival at Pyongyang airport were the very pleasant Ms. Yu, perhaps in her early thirties, the charming but quite shy Ms. Lee, in her early twenties, and the cheerful Mr. Pyong who was 27. The representative of KORYO tours, who accompanied us from Beijing and throughout North Korea until we left by train was Tori, a young American leading her fifth visit into North Korea. Another aspect of the tour, obviously understandable in the context, is that the official program was busy from morning to evening.

The countryside is mountainous and very picturesque. About half of our tour was dedicated to visiting and hiking around Mt. Kumgang, Mt. Paekdu and Mt. Chilbo. The other half consisted of visits to various sites (farms, factories, schools etc.) designed to portray the DPRK in a positive light due to the enlightened leadership and infallible wisdom of Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il,and now Kim Jong Un. The official “spin” was usually delivered by Ms. Yu on the bus shortly before arriving at a site. But this was done in a low-key and non-polemical manner. Once we arrived at a site, we would be met by a local guide. In every case, the description was initially given to us in Korean, which was then translated. Usually Ms. Yu did the interpretation, but occasionally the visited site had their own interpreter.

After an initial tour of Pyongyang, we left the following morning to drive across the peninsula to Wonsan, a major port town on the east coast. Wonsan was the most prosperous city we saw along the east coast. Wonsan pier was one of the rare places in the country where we could be away from our guides. As the pier had only a few fishermen and lead only to a small island with two houses, we walked ahead on our own for about an hour before walking back and seeing the ever charming Ms. Yu. There was a gentle admonishment that she had been looking for us, but left it at that.

The resort at Mt. Kumgang was initially built by Hyundai corporation as an isolated mountain spot just north of the DMZ where South Koreans would be able to go under the “sunshine policy” of a previous South Korean President, Kim Dae Jung. However, the program was stopped a couple of years ago and that access point to the DPRK is now inaccessible for South Koreans. The hikes up to a series of waterfalls in the area are beautiful. Similarly up in the far north at Mt Paekdu, there is a shrine to the birthplace of Kim Jong Il and a beautiful blue lake that can be viewed from the summit of North Korea’s highest mountain. Around Mount Chilbo as well, we visited a Buddhist shrine and did a short hike in the mountains.

One of the more innovative features of travel in North Korea is the availability of a home-stay program along the east cost of Korea at Chilbo, in a coastal village below the mountain of the same name. This was something of a set-up in that the homes, though inhabited by North Korean families, were built specifically for this purpose. The homes we stayed in were notably more upscale than what was typical of what we had seen while driving across the peninsula  or along the various spots on the east coast. While Americans were welcome on the tour, they were not permitted to stay overnight in the home-stay, and instead had to stay at a hotel about 20 kilometers away. Alas, of our group, only Tori, the American KORYO tour group representative, and one of the other Americans spoke any Korean, so as they left we had no opportunity to talk with our local North Korean hosts.

Chilbo was another place where we could walk fairly freely along the beach and around the village in the evening and at night.

Our experience in North Korea was at its most controlled in Hamhung and Chongjin, two industrial cities along the east coast only opened to foreign visitors since 2010. There we were told that we could not walk anywhere outside of the hotel. Our experience in Chongjin probably came closest to the hyper-controlled caricature of travel in North Korea that is portrayed in the West. A Canadian guide with another group (three groups traveled together in the chartered plane), Chris Graper, provided the context as we landed at Orang airport, the access point for Chongjin, in saying “Welcome to retro DPRK. You are now going to experience what traveling in the entire country used to be like until only a few years ago.”

We were fortunate in visiting the DPRK during the period when the Arirang Mass Games were being held in a stadium in Pyongyang. It is among the most impressive performances I have ever seen. There are approximately 100,000 participants in the performance, including several thousand school children on the opposite side of the stadium displaying flash cards…the North Korean flag, a portrait of a smiling Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, the little house on Mt. Paekdu were Kim Jong Il was born, Kim Il Sung’s first handgun, s

olidarity between China and the DPRK… It was an exceptional and visually stunning performance and well worth the supplementary 85 Euros that we had to pay for admission.

As a Canadian, I was permitted to depart Pyongyang by train to Beijing. The journey took a little under 24 hours. It took about six hours to get to the North Korean border town if Siniujin. The border crossing was straightforward but very slow, about two hours on the Korean side. The Korean customs agent, a woman in her thirties, asked to look through the photographs in my camera. She deleted a handful of the several hundred I had taken. The crossing of the bridge over the Yalu river to Dandong marked a huge contrast as we entered into China, a now much more modern society with all the trappings and bright lights of a more developed country.

Form the late 1940s until the end of the 1980s, a significant percentage of the worlds’ population lived in ostensibly communist societies that controlled the entry and exit of visitors and did not allow free movement of their own nationals outside their country. The DPRK may be the only place left on earth where the underlying ideology which sustains it, mixed with the unique aspects of  “juche” (self-reliance), continues to this extent. It is certainly worth a visit and rewards the visitor with a unique experience and perspective.

 

Photos by David Edwards - North Korea Flash Card artwork

Photos by David Edwards - North Korea Flash Card artwork