All posts by Eli

23Aug/16

The Dnipropetrovsk Metro Party

Written by Annie Nimity

As I type this in mid-August 2016, it’s nearly five years to the day since I attempted the Metro Party Challenge in Dnipropetrovsk in honour of my friend’s upcoming nuptials, as one does. Or at least as one does when one is in the habit of vacationing in the former Soviet Union, specifically in towns with nigh unpronounceable names and metro lines running from nowhere to nowhere. But let’s back up a bit.

dnipro1

Walking past YUZHMASH

Dnipropetrovsk (which was as of May this year was officially renamed Dnipro — annoying, as I enjoyed being one of the few non-Ukrainians who had mastered that mouthful) is the fourth largest city in Ukraine. It was once a “closed city” due to the fact that it was the production centre for the Soviet Union’s intercontinental ballistic missiles at a factory known under its acronym YUZHMASH. It wasn’t until the waning years of the Soviet Union that the government publicly acknowledged the city’s existence and “opened” it to foreigners — although to this day few non-Ukrainians have heard of it and fewer have visited. Certainly my friends and I were the only non-Ukrainians we encountered during our brief and hazily remembered trip to the city.

At our first stop, just outside the Komunarivska Station (renamed Pokrovska in 2015)

At our first stop, just outside the Komunarivska Station (renamed Pokrovska in 2015)

My friends and I stumbled off the train from Kiev early in the morning, bleary-eyed and slightly nauseated after an evening aboard a sweltering and thoroughly unventilated platzkart wagon. (Platzkart, in case you were wondering, is the third class train car, rather akin to a rolling dormitory. Air conditioning is nonexistent, and as Ukrainians are no strangers to the Slavic fear of death-by-draft, cracking a window was simply not an option.) We were met at the train station by our friend D, whose upcoming wedding to a resident of Dnipro we had come to celebrate in what we were referring to as ‘the first stag party in Dnipropetrovsk.’ D led us to his apartment where he and is bride-to-be welcomed us with shots of samogon, or moonshine, produced by D’s soon to be father-in-law. It was not yet 8am.

I think this was outside of the Zavodska Station. Maybe.

I think this was outside of the Zavodska Station. Maybe.

Dnipropetrovsk has an interesting, if rather ineffective, public transport system. Above ground, rickety trams, trolleys, buses and minibuses trundle through the streets, much as they do in any other major city of the former Soviet Union. Below ground, however… In the early 1980s, when Dnipropetrovsk was still a closed city, the Soviet government decided that as a large city and home to the Union’s premier ICBM factory, Dnipropetrovsk needed a subway system befitting its status. Construction of the Dnipropetrovsk Metro began in 1982, although the first — and to this day, only — line didn’t open until 1995. At 7.1km in length and with only six operational stations, it is the world’s shortest subway system. One end of the line, Vokzalna, deposits passengers at the train station (vokzal meaning train station and all), located on the edge of the central region of Dnipro. The opposite end of the line is located not in the centre of the city, but 7.1km in the opposite direction — in the suburbs, yes, but not far enough into the suburbs to be all that useful. In fact, unless you happen to both live and work along the metro’s short route, it’s not going to be all that useful to you.

Our group in matching Metro Party shirts and Kyrgyz felt hats.

Our group in matching Metro Party shirts and Kyrgyz felt hats.

Why do I mention this? See, D had invited us to Dnipropetrovsk for his stag party, not only because he and his fiancée lived there, but because he wanted us to take part in what he and his friends referred to as a Metro Party. The idea of a Metro Party was to ride the metro from one end to the other, getting off at each stop and downing a beverage — either a glass of beer or a shot of vodka, depending on what was available. I’m not much of a drinker, but I didn’t think that six drinks spread out over the course of several hours would do me in. D warned me not to underestimate the Metro Party, and I should have listened. Perhaps it was the samogon we’d started the day off with, but the other lady in our group and I only made it to about three stations, and I was far worse off than she was. The guys finished the Metro Party — or at least I think they did.

Me today.

Me today.

I was cleaning out my closet the other day and stumbled upon my Metro Party shirt. (Yes, we had matching shirts; yes, we were those obnoxious arseholes.) The red part of the decal has long since come off in the wash, and, like the city itself, many of the stations now bear different names than they did back in 2011, but it still fits. And I’m still a lightweight.

19May/16

Yes I live here – 10 things you didn’t know about working on cruise ships

To say it has been a checkered journey to my current life of taking people on holidays to places their mother would rather they didn’t visit would be quite an understatement.

In the UK I did all manner of jobs – from selling double glazing to picking litter at a landfill site – before my wanderlust took me bartending in the Cayman Islands, working on cruise ships and then teaching in China, before finding my vocation with YPT tours.

I’ve fond memories of everything I’ve ever done (maybe not the litter picking) but of all the jobs the biggest learning curve and fund of great memories was my time on cruise ships.

As I write this I’m sitting on a public ferry in the Philippines, and it’s impossible not to reminisce a little. So I’ve decided share some pearls of wisdom about what living on a cruise ship is really like (Clue: It’s not like the movies.)

10. There are no days off.
9. The food must be really good for staff
with all those fine dining restaurants
on board, surely? Erm... no.
8. Every night must be
a great party in all the bars?
Again, no.
7. The staff are not like the movies –
many are foreign
6. Seeing as you don't have
any bills you must save
a ton of money. Huh. Right.
Nice one.
5. You are earning a tax free wage.
4. The staff are not paid equally
3. You share a tiny room with bunk beds
and a roommate
2. There are ranking systems –
like the navy...
1. There is a strict drinking limit!
Arrow
Arrow
New slideWhenever I told people I worked on cruise ships they would assume it was a non-stop party, which while partly true, ignores the fact that you work a lot of hours. For western bar and wait staff contracted hours are 70 per week, and if you're lucky you might get one afternoon off per cruise (which can be two weeks). But you're not even gauranteed that. I once had a boss who would punish any infringement by taking away my "off". At one point I went three whole months without a single afternoon off! But it could be worse: While western staff work six months on and three months off, Indian and Filipino crew do nine months for the same amount of leave.
Slider

BONUS ROUND! Some slang from the ships

  • Chicken or beef – Like “he needs to be careful or its chicken or beef”. If you get sacked you’ll have to fly home from wherever the ship is, and on the flight home you’ll probably be offered chicken or beef.

  • Taxi – When two people try to sneak off from the crew bar to make sexy time in their cabin, it’s customary for those who spot them to shout “taxi”. Maybe immature, but always amusing.

  • The M1 – The area below the the first passenger deck that crew use for all manner of things such as collecting salary or traversing through the ship.

  • D&V – To avoid Norovirus the moment someone has D&V (diarrhea and vomiting) they are made to stay in their cabin under quarantine. D&V can also stand for Drinking & Vodka, another common cause of vomitting.

  • IPM – In port manning. You surrender your crew card and are forbidden from leaving the ship, so that in case of emergency there’ll be enough staff on hand. My first IPM was in Amsterdam. It was 12 years ago and I’m still pissed off about it!



05May/16

Researching places that don’t exist

Back in 2012 I was due to lead our third tour into the Islamic Republic of Iran before a month interlude between hooking up with YPT’s second annual Eurasian Adventure Tour in Kiev, and with but a mere two countries between my destinations, a pocket full of money, two trusty travel buddies, and a month to kill all roads led towards a sexy little research trip.

In the good old days of the Cold War the northern border of Iran separated the capitalist west from the Soviet Union and in particular the Azerbaijan SSR, Armenian SSR, and lastly the Georgian SSR, 3 newly independent states that I had wanted to check out both from professional and personal point of view for a long time. What the Caucuses also had was something I have a borderline sick obsession with, unrecognized countries and frozen conflict zones, in this case namely Nagorno-Karabakh, Abkhazia, and the real mafia jewel in the crown South Ossetia. A plan was made, we would cross from Tehran up to the border by car before traversing over to Armenia, Nagorno-Karabakh, and Georgia before finishing it all in Abkhazia (it was decided that that South Ossetia a bit too sketchy). What could go wrong?

On our first day in Iran my travel companion Joe had noticed that every 3rd shop in Tehran seemed to be selling extremely shiny, and dare I say borderline offensively shiny suits, it was suggested off the cuff that we should all go and buy one, I agreed expecting it was one of those throw away amusing comments that no one ever plans to do. I was wrong and on our last night in Tehran 3 of us were sitting in a tailors being made to measure for shiny silver, green and gold suites, complemented with lapels and frilly elements to our white shirts, the tailor did not speak English, but if he had I half expected him to look at my face and say “too jazzy”?.

So $100 and a mad last night out in Tehran and we were now wearing our shiny suits (now complemented by a Hannah Montana bag) and heading up north to the border with Armenia. Whilst Iran is a beautiful and interesting country to travel around their motorways (and dining choices) are not the most interesting, so we were somewhat pleased to rock up to the border suited and booted around nightfall. Armenia is now visa free, but at the time we went you were required to get an online visa on arrival, something which despite we had done for some reason was not showing up on the system, so despite having cleared through Iran we were now stuck in the the border limbo land. My Russian speaking colleague whiled the two hours away chatting with the guards, whilst I spent my time mostly standing outside smoking and watching the trucks come through. After two hours of post-Soviet bureaucracy we were finally stamped and let through, as we were just about the to leave the building the border guard shouted out to the Russian speaker “one minute man, I got one question”, “whats up”? “Man what the fucks up with those suits”?………he smiled and replied “we just went to a wedding”. The Armenian guard said “oh” and then looked even more confused than ever as we exited into Armenia.

In most of the ex-USSR taxis are less like we know in the west, and much more resemble an old man with a Lada without a meter who charges whatever he fancies charging. Yeah traveling by yourself can be fun, but at this point I was pretty damned pleased to be accompanied by a walking talking tour guide/translator and after negotiating a $4 ride to the nearest cheap as hell hotel we headed off. I’m a massive fan of border towns, because they tend to be very sleazy, and when your particular border town borders genuine Islamic Republic and is serviced by salt if the earth truckers it was unsurprising to see strip clubs and the kind of nightclubs where women outnumber men as far as the eye could see. As tragic as it sounds the three of us being early to late 30’s in age settled for a night in with beer and cheese, two other luxuries (largely) unavailable to us in Iran.

As interesting and seedy as border towns are, during the day they lack interest, so we got up early and decided to head off on the next part of our adventure onto the border town of Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh, Goris. Goris was an extremely pleasant place to stay for a few days, lots of churches to look at, old buildings, and what we enjoyed the most an old Soviet style bar filled with communist kitsch where the governor (who does resemble Borat) made his own home made vodka. Easily the most drunk I had been in a whole week. I was also introduced to what is now one of my newfound culinary loves Chechil, which is a braided salty cheese traditionally eaten when you eat beer, or drink vodka, I added watching football as well which made it probably the best day of my life.

Goris was nice, but we had come out this way with bigger fish to fry, with that fish being the unrecognized state of Nagorno-Karabakh. If you want a detailed background on the place check out Wikipedia, but for an abridged version basically NK is ethnically Armenian, but was a part of Azerbaijan, at the end of the old CCCP they declared independence and fought a war with Azerbaijan, which with Armenian and Russian help they won. The world recognizes them as part of Azerbaijan and normal level headed people with intelligence accept that not only are they not, but they don’t want to be. I’ve been to quite a few border crossings, but this one was special, army dudes and little look at our passport before we were whisked on to our imaginary country for the next few days. On arrival in Stepanakert the capital we checked into our hotel before heading to the immigration bureau for our “visa on arrival” which they stamp in your passport, or on a piece of paper if you ever want to travel to Azerbaijan, who won’t let you in if you have this visa in your passport. I made my stand that that day and decided I would rather a cool stamp than to go to a country that acted so childishly. Being in genuine capital city and it being Halloween we decided to hit the cities only nightclub. I won’t go into massive detail about the club, but weird would be somewhat the understatement. We went (obviously) in our shiny suits. The clientele ranged from unaccompanied children to oligarchs and the elderly, a total of about 25 people. The evening consisted mostly of what appeared to be strange Soviet era games before at about 11pm when there was a massive, and I mean massive food fight. Not feeling the evening was weird enough I decided to buy 8 cans of beer on the way home, drink them at the hotel and then shave my head, badly. Not your average day at the office.

Aside from frankly bizarre nightclubs Stepanakert doesn’t have all that much to offer, so we decided to head to the next part of our freak show, a place by the name of Vank. Now to give Vank a little background. An Armenian dude went to America chasing the American dream, made himself a billionaire and then decided he would reward his hometown people of Vank by building bizarre monuments such as one made from a Lada the locals gave him as a gift, a collection of number plates, and a hotel modeled on the Titanic. The big Kahuna still pops back every now and again showering the locals with money, and unsurprisingly he’s still fairly popular. Weird, but well worth a stop.

Our next port of call was a brief stop in Yerevan the capital of Armenia. As capitals go it was extremely pleasant, a real post Soviet bar scene, the cool beautiful moneyed people of Armenia, and as we read online great strip clubs……Strippers and booze aside theres also the brandy factory, and just outside the oldest church in the world (Armenia was the first country to adopt Christianity), two days well spent we headed to Tblisi.

Whilst driving around in Ladas is pleasant enough you have not traveled around these parts unless you have taken at least one overnight sleeper train, so after stocking up on vodka we boarded our bed for the night. There truly is something special about rolling slowly through the Soviet Wastelands drinking vodka and kicking it back with your friends, in any journey this is a highlight.

Tbilisi the capital of Georgia is OK as cities go, and I have friends that absolutely rave about the place, but to me it was decidedly so so, perhaps because I had enjoyed Yerevan so much. The one night we did “hit the town” was fairly interesting as I arrived to meet my friend at a bar, where he was drinking Absinthe Mojitos and chatting up some rather stunning ladies. After procuring my own Absinthe Mojito, the ladies then left our table to join the huge Soviet dude who had come to meet them. He flashed us a smile, sat down and as his ass hit the chair we got a flash of the glock hanging off his hip. His point was made, we asked for the bill. FYI Absinthe Mojitos cost $25 a pop in Tbilisi. Two lessons learned.

We did a few more days touring around places near the border with Turkey, which largely consisted of the other two looking at stuff whilst I drank vodka, before we headed off for what was in my mind at least the highlight of the trip the hometown of Joseph Jughashvili, or as the cool kids know him Uncle Joe Stalin, Gori.

Now before I go into detail about our crazy few days in Gori, it is worth regaling you with some Soviet humor. Whenever we told friends from various parts of the old USSR that we were going to the Caucuses, and Georgia in particular everyone we told would joke that we should be careful because everyone in this region was gay and would try to “bum rape us”. Something we obviously laughed off as being one of those untrue stereotypes that do not exist in the real world. I’ll come back to this point later….

On arrival in Gori we decided to go full on Soviet and book into the Intourist hotel. For those not geeky enough to know what Intourist is, basically they were the Soviet government tourism monolith that controlled all elements of tourism in the Soviet Union, including which hotels they could bug and thus foreigners were allowed to stay. When YPT stay in Tiraspol we stay in the corresponding hotel there, and it is frankly just a wonderful experience, if you like cold rooms but a real Soviet experience.

Whilst Stalin is largely reviled by most of the world now, in Gori he is a big deal, with this being the only place where his statue was taken down, but actually put up again, it is also where the Stalin museum is. The Stalin museum? Well it is wonderful, very pro Big Joe, and with his old train carriage, his original family home and a massive statue of the Uncle very commie extreme.

After a day spent in museums, we decided to indulge our anthropological sides and get out down and dirty with the locals by indulging in some drinking at a wee local tavern. It was not long before a bunch of young, but big and strong Georgians decided to befriend us and pretty soon we were shooting massive shots of vodka. This is where stuff started to get interesting, Joe from our group is a big muscley American former first mate on  ship and is fairly good at arm wrestling, so everyone wanted to arm wrestle him. He kept winning. People in Stalin hometown getting beaten by the American did not go down well. We were then invited aggressively to their houses. We then decided to leave. The end of the night consisted of us running away from a chasing pack of Georgian males shouting they wanted to “fluck your blasses” or words to those effect. Who said stereotypes were always wrong?

My two companions left the next day to continue their travels with my plan to spend one more night in Gori before heading off to Abkhazia. What actually happened was I discovered a great cafe with good food, fast wifi, cheap vodka and a view of Stalin from the window. Everyday I would head off to the bus station drunk at 6pm to be told I had missed the last bus (by day 4 they thought I was mental), before spending another night in Gori.

I eventually left 5 days later for Batumi to get my flight to Kiev. Yes I had missed Abkhazia, yes I had spent almost a week in the drab old Soviet hometown of genuine great dictator, but some like beaches, good bars, great food and clubs, I had cheese, vodka, Soviet grim and a daily view of Stalin, this was my Ibiza.

I managed to visit Abkhazia later, and largely use the basis of the trip to create what is now one of our most important tours on the calendar, the unrecognized countries tour, and whilst, thankfully for most it is not exactly like my research trip, we still feel it holds some of the same spirit.

17Sep/15
Iceland

Cold place, warm heart. A city break in Reykjavik, Iceland

Written by Kitty Busz

What better way to escape the miserable beginnings of winter in the United Kingdom than disappearing to somewhere uhm, even colder. Although we questioned our sanity as we reflected back on the ridiculously mad middle of the night drive to Luton airport (which ISN’T in London) and emerged outside of the freezing cold tiny airport, Reykjavik is honestly one of the best city breaks I have ever done. This magical island had always attracted my wanderlusting mind, the thought of the crisp, clean air in the land of ice and fire, it’s Europe but so different. I love it.

So, the top experiences in Iceland for those headed there on a city break:

Explore the city of Reykjavik. TExplore the city of Reykjavikhis will be the base of most trips in Iceland, most of the exciting things to do are located within an hour of city making it perfectly located. Don’t be fooled by the distinct grey which dominates the drive in, the city is filled with beautiful architecture, cute cafes, lively bars and wooden houses sandwiched together. This sleepy, gingerbreadesque capital is also packed with history and culture with the most breathtaking building being the Hallgrimskirkja Church. Designed to resemble the lava flows of the landscape and at seventy three meters, it is a stunning skyline feature.

Blue LagoonBlue Lagoon. It’s the most popular thing to do in Iceland for a reason. The geothermal pool is located perfectly between Reykjavik and the airport, making it an ideal first or last stop off. Or both. This wonder is located in a lava field and is one of the most incredible things I have ever seen, the water is full of goodness, being rich in minerals such as silica and sulphur. The water temperature is around forty centigrade and although it may be busy, there’s plenty of lagoon to go around. Mud deposits are dotted around and people slap it onto themselves with abandon whilst sipping on cocktails and floating around.

Geyser Geothermal AreaGeyser Geothermal Area. This place is insane on so many levels. One – it’s hilarious. You’re stood there, chatting to people and suddenly a geyser shoots water up forty meters taking everyone by surprise. Two – geographically it is so unique and stunning. The area is surrounded by other geothermal features for example mud pool and algal deposits. It’s worth visiting the area either really early morning or late evening otherwise you are likely to be joined by about a million other people in your photo of the Strokkur geyser that everybody just has to get. Also climb up the surrounding hills for the best views of the whole geothermal area.

Thingvellir National ParkThingvellir National Park. This National Park lies in a rift valley which marks the crest of the Mid Atlantic range, where the American and Eurasian tectonic plates are moving apart. When driving there you go past the largest natural lake in Iceland which adds to the whole wilderness of the area which I was fascinated with. A few hours to explore this area gives the opportunity for some beautiful walks and the chance to discover the buildings hidden away in behind the hills.

kitty5Northern Lights. This is a bit of a bittersweet one because we didn’t actually get to see them in their full glory, however it is a perfect excuse to return! The camaraderie of everybody waiting was catching, it wasn’t just all cameras on tripods, there was dancing, beer and discussions, the haziness and tiredness definitely made the disappointment more easy to handle.

15Sep/15

How to survive a party hostel in South America

Writen by Kitty Busz

So if you’re planning a trip to South America you’ll probably find yourself winding up at one of the famous party cities over the continent. La Paz, Rio de Janeiro, Cusco, Bogota….. the list continues. And even if partying until the sun comes up isn’t really your thing, I would definitely recommend checking one out during your time there. You will never look at partying in the same way again and probably every night you have out will seem substandard for the next few years.

In order to survive this experience make sure you;

1) Don’t try and fight the fact that you will be partying until the early hours. Don’t feel bad or guilty, just throw yourself into it because even if you do try and sleep you won’t be able to.

2) Don’t start partying too early. We all have a shelf life.

3) Respect the no drugs signs which are plastered all over the walls, do whatever you want to but just don’t get caught. It will ruin your life. (I don’t speak from personal experience)

4) Make sure all of your stuff is locked away. These type of hostels are a breeding ground for petty theft which if it’s your passport will be less than ideal. All of these hostels offer lockers and whether they’re free or paid take the offer up.

5) Stay in the city for a while. It will take you three times the amount of time to achieve anything productive during your stay.

6) Don’t bother setting an alarm. There is just no point.

7) Try and get out in the city during the day. These cities are often awesome and shouldn’t completely be abandoned for the sake of partying the night away.

8) Saving a few quid and staying in a twenty bed dorm compared might simply not be worth it when there’s the option of a six bed dorm. Less stuff strewn on the floor, less likely to be kept awake even later thanks to eloping drunk people, less likely to have stuff stolen. Its just better.

Kitty is a 22 year old Journalism graduate whose passions are writing and travel. She loves all kinds of adventures from the 5* city breaks in Europe to the more off the wall train journeys through the Middle East.

14Sep/15

It’s a British thing…

Written by Kitty Busz

So, we’re a little bit pampered in the UK when it comes to getting what we want, when we want food wise. And we don’t even have to leave the comfort of our homes in order to get it, Ethiopian, Thai, Indian… the most strenuous activity you will have to partake in is putting your bottle of beer down and dragging yourself to the front door to grab your latest food choice and indulge yourself. But it’s not quite that simple when we’re travelling and every so often the inevitable cravings turn into a sort of group mental torture event where we fantasise over the best imaginable, unattainable food porn.

So the top ten things I miss?

  1. Roast dinner. Because nothing quite defines a lazy hungover Sunday like the smell of a cooked roast with all the trimmings wafting through the house.

  2. Indian takeout. No one quite does Indian food like the British, I’m pretty sure the curry is now one of our national dishes.

  3. Marmite. You either love it or hate it and those of us who love it deeply miss it.

  4. Crumpets. Which actually taste really good with the above on.

  5. Chocolate. Although Galaxy and Cadbury are more readily available over the world these days, often the relatively high price dictates the frequency of the binges.

  6. Real bacon. There is nothing like a bacon sandwich with proper bacon. The bacon probably isn’t even from the UK but the way we put the sandwiches together are just the best.

  7. Walkers crisps. (Not chips) Lays just don’t quite do the same job.

  8. A good sausage. Like a proper thick one from the butchers.

  9. Rekorderlig. Now I don’t even like cider and this stuff is basically glorified squash but a bottle of it with a load of ice is one of the best accompaniments for an evening.

  10. Greggs. Even if you don’t like them surely you’ll miss the sheer ubiquity of them at home.

Kitty is a 22 year old Journalism graduate whose passions are writing and travel. She loves all kinds of adventures from the 5* city breaks in Europe to the more off the wall train journeys through the Middle East.

29Aug/15

How I became a tour guide in North Korea

Written by Charlotte Guttridge

I’ve had a fascination with the DPRK for over a decade now. Something about it has always drawn me in. From the seemingly endless media gossip to books and news reports sourced from inside the country, I’ve soaked everything and anything up that is even remotely related to the country since I was a teenager.pyongyangone

It was somewhere that I wanted to go, badly. If you asked me my number one travel destination over the past ten years, the answer would always be North Korea. It was as if I knew that at some point my future would align with the Korean peninsula, but I couldn’t tell you why, or how. Disclosing that you are interested in visiting North Korea is often met with a mixture of confusion, laughter, and occasionally contempt. It’s not a beach holiday in Ibiza. For most people in the UK, I suppose North Korea is a shady unknown filed firmly in the category of “places you can’t visit, and don’t want to.” In fact, it is the one of the least visited countries by UK citizens in the world.

“Although it was something that I desperately wanted to do, it never seemed to come to pass. Family and friends were disinterested, or worried about the repercussions of traveling to the country. One of the prevailing myths is that visiting the DPRK as a tourist is dangerous. Those of us who have been know that this couldn’t be further from the truth, but it’s easy to believe when all we really ever hear about North Korea in the media is of a dark and sinister place. I don’t think anybody really believed my persistent remarks that one day I would go there.”

Apart from holidays, and a brief and misguided stint in Australia and Turkey when I was a teenager, I’ve always had my feet firmly planted in the UK. Eighteen months ago, I was a pretty typical British 20-something; working in a middle management position for a financial company, living at home to save money and to afford to travel a couple of times a year. I could see the next few years laid out neatly in front of me. The possibility of an upcoming promotion that would net me very decent prospects in the scintillating world of Insurance, a deposit to put on a small two bedroom and quite possibly a cat. In short, a safe and comfortable future.

It was at this point my curiosity reached its peak and I decided that it was now or never. I was going to North Korea, and I was going alone. I researched travel companies and after some deliberation decided on YPT. They seemed younger and cooler than the others, their TripAdvisor reviews were immaculate, and they were much cheaper than any other tour provider. I sent YPT an email and was put in contact with Rowan Beard, a tour manager and part owner who I immediately googled and was very disappointed to learn that he did not in fact have a beard. I paid my deposit and booked my tour, and the next couple of months were spent in a state of anxious excitement.

“My mother’s reaction when I told her was “oh my god Charlotte”, my father asked me if I was insane, and my colleagues at the time threw me a”nice to have known you” party the day before I flew out to Beijing.”

After a couple of days bumbling about in Beijing with zero Chinese language abilities, wondering if I’d made a huge mistake, I met Rowan, YPT’s founder Gareth, and the rest of the group the day before my flight into Pyongyang. To say Rowan and I clicked is an understatement – it’s a friendship that only gets stronger and more awesome with every passing day. There’s no one in the world who knows how to wind me up like Rowan, a fact he is very well aware of!

Kim Il Sung Square in Pyongyang

Kim Il Sung Square in Pyongyang

Whatever I expected from the tour to follow, I didn’t get. I didn’t expect to drink with North Koreans at 3am and swap rude jokes. I didn’t expect to take a selfie with a soldier at the DMZ and certainly I didn’t expect that my interest in the country would increase tenfold with every day I spent there. I thought that I would return to the UK, my curiosity sated, and that I would resume my lovely, if not slightly dull, life.

What I didn’t expect most of all was the reaction on day three of the tour, when after some deliberation and with a “what’s the worst that can happen” attitude, I approached Rowan about the possibility of working for YPT. He told me that this was something to think seriously about – and that it could definitely be arranged. The rest of the tour passed like a bit of a dream, with my mind whirling with this new place and the prospect of returning.

On the flight home, I made my decision. There was nothing set in stone – no contract, no start date, just a promise that next year at some point there would be an opening for a tour guide position and I would be contacted. But something had sparked in me and I realised that I had to make a change. I didn’t know if I would ever work for YPT. What I did know that there was adventure out there, and I had a choice. I could see two futures unfolding; my safe haven and the absolute unknown.

A very brief stint as a kindergarten teacher in Bangkok

A very brief stint as a kindergarten teacher in Bangkok

“On my first day back in the UK, I quit my job, hastily packed a suitcase and booked a one way ticket to Thailand for the next week. My nearest and dearest questioned my sanity yet again, and I began to wonder if they were right. I figured I could teach English there and wait, and if nothing came of my North Korean dream I would have a decent story to tell, and another country under my belt.”

As it turns out, I didn’t have long to wait at all. Almost exactly three months after I touched down in Bangkok, Rowan contacted me and told me there was a job waiting for me in China. It was sooner than I expected. I had just moved into an apartment. I had a great job working with adorable kids. I was learning Thai. I was enjoying myself. I was in China within a fortnight.

Half of the YPT team in Beijing, a week before my first trip into the DPRK as a member of staff

Half of the YPT team in Beijing, a week before my first trip into the DPRK as a member of staff

The rest, as they say, is history. It’s been over a year since that fateful day that I semi-drunkenly cornered Rowan in the bowling alley of the Yanggakdo Hotel to ask him to hire me, and I’ve been a full time member of YPT staff since September of 2014. I alternate between managing our online presence and guiding tours to the DPRK, helping tourists to have that same experience and engagement with Koreans that so captivated me. I can confidently say that it’s the best job I’ve ever had – the thought of returning to a fluorescent cubicle is anathema to me now – and my absolute favourite question in the world to be asked is “so, what do you do?”

I’ll return to the DPRK next month to guide two tours back to back – our ever popular Summer Tour, and to see Slovenian band Laibach perform in North Korea, making it the first time in history that a foreign group has played there. That’s pretty exciting stuff.

I don’t know if there’s a message here, but what I’ve taken away from this experience is that it can be okay to act rashly if you feel that what you are doing is right. Sometimes life just falls in place and things work out better than you ever expected.

Thanks for reading, past present and (hopefully) future Pioneers. See you in Pyongyang…:-)

seeyouinpyongyang

02Aug/15

Crisis de Octubre

Most people have heard of the Cuban Missile Crisis – known in Cuba as the ‘Crisis de Octubre’, where, for 13 days in 1962 the world came closer than any time before or since to global nuclear conflict. So surely in Cuba, almost everyone should know about the crisis, and exactly what happened and where? Not really so. Most Cubans asked have, of course, heard about the crisis, but solid information about what happened and exactly where is nearly non-existent.

IMG_1123We thought it unlikely that installation of military hardware on such a scale would leave no physical trace, so Cuban Pioneers set out to see what could be found.

The first stop was the town of Bejucal, about 20 km south of Havana. Our driver had already taken us to a couple of unusual spots well off the tourist trail in his red 1950s Chevrolet, so he didn’t bat an eyelid when he was directed him up a very steep road leading to a hilltop overlooking the town. On the way up the hill we passed some mysterious caves cut into the cliff at the side of the road. Eventually we passed what looked like a guard hut, long since boarded up. Then there was a large concrete five-pointed star, emblem of socialism, on a traffic island in the middle of the rarely-used road. A small statue of Cuban national hero Jose Martí had been recently added. There was a series of rather dilapidated buildings which appeared little different to those found in any other Cuban town, except that there was little logical reason for them to be on a hilltop rather than in the valley below. There were two- and three-storey apartment blocks with children playing outside, and another building which looked like it had once been offices on the upper floor, with car parking at ground level. This had once been a Soviet military command post for the bunker where the nuclear warheads had been stored in 1962, pending an order being given for them to be sent out to the launch sites. But nothing here confirmed the former purpose of the place.

On the other side of the valley we had more luck. After following the winding old road back towards Havana for a few kilometres, we turned off onto an unpaved and very rocky track. I fully expected our driver to declare that he was going no further – the 1950s cars in Cuba are precious and are treated with respect befitting their age. But he continued, carefully steering around the largest of the holes in the track. At the first turning, we set off on foot for the last hundred metres. We were looking for a particular design of fence, which had shown up on the photographs taken by CIA spy planes. It turned out we had come down the wrong track, leaving a few Cuban farm workers wondering what on earth had brought a group of gringos to their front doors.

IMG_1125The next turning proved more fruitful. After a few hundred metres we came to a gate which matched the characteristic angle of fence posts in the photos taken more than 50 years before, by F-8 Crusader reconnaissance pilots risking anti-aircraft fire flying only 1000 feet above the Cuban landscape, with little chance of a successful bailout if they were hit. Ironically, this fence was what had put the USA’s intelligence analysts off the scent of the 1-megaton Soviet warheads. Poring over the thousands of feet of film in a secret facility in Washington, they had initially considered this as a possible location for the warheads, but had discounted it due to the single fence and lack of obvious security, instead believing that the nuclear components were being kept near the port of Mariel, 50 km away.

Our driver parked up and once again we continued on foot. On a previous visit to this site, the residents of the nearest house had said that yes, many years ago there had been something military here, but no, there was definitely no bunker or anything similar nearby. We assumed this to be true, and expected to find nothing but a few farm buildings, once again giving no indication of their former purpose. We turned away from the simple farmhouse buildings, heading downhill and through a gate in a barbed wire fence which had been strung across the overgrown track. The track seemed to disappear into the jungle, but we pushed on, before nearly stumbling across a three metre high opening in the hillside.

It was immediately clear that this was something which had to be checked out, so we pushed aside the branches and headed inside. In front of us was a concrete tunnel built into the hillside, stripped bare of all but painted revolutionary slogans, but perfectly
preserved.

IMG_1140Here was ample space for storage of the warheads, which in conjunction with the R-12 medium-range missiles had given the Soviet Union for a few short days in 1962 the capability to drop a bomb with the power of 70 Hiroshimas on Washington DC and at the very limit of the rocket’s 2000 km range, on downtown New York City.

It was not until long after the crisis was over, and indeed the Soviet Union had ceased to exist, that the location was revealed. If the CIA had correctly identified the site back in October 1962, it’s possible that President Kennedy would have bowed to ressure from his generals and ordered a pre-emptive air strike, or even a parachute drop of elite troops to try and destroy the warheads. How Moscow would have responded is anyone’s guess, but it’s likely that things would have escalated very quickly. We had just been to the spot which was the most probable location for World War III to have started. As we headed back to Havana for a round of cold mojitos, we considered it rather a good thing that Kennedy and Khruschev had managed to knock their heads together and avert armageddon.

27Jul/15

Where the open road began: The ancient homeland of the original nomads

Summer was arriving in Kashmir’s Sindh Valley. The ice was retreating up the towering mountains and the fragrant heather was lending the hillsides a cloak of purple. Far below, the river ran wide with melted snow. As the seasons move, so the time comes for annual migrations.

The call of cuckoos carried a melancholy air of farewell, a sound I’d usually associate with autumn in the English countryside. The darting swallows seemed to be taking a final look at their winter home, as they prepared for their astonishing journey to the insect-rich wilderness of Siberia.

The path we were following along the steep slope was only a foot-span wide, marked out by the passage of sheep and cattle. Our destination was a collection of rough stone-built huts, the summer abode of the original Gypsies, who when I visited with a local guide were still on the road, herding their sheep up from their winter pastures.

Today this is a small population, the remnant of a people who started travelling towards the setting sun, and never stopped. Here however, in this remote outpost of Northern India, the Gypsies continue with their ancient twice-yearly migration between lowland and upland.

IMG_2504-350x184

Why they set out on their epic westward journey, nobody really knows, but it was almost certainly triggered by the sort of persecution that has dogged their steps ever since.

There has always been confusion about the origins of the Gypsies, reflected in the various names they have been given over the years. Gypsy is a shorted form of “Egyptian”, based on a colourful theory that they were descended from the Biblical innkeeper of ‘Little Egypt’ who turned away Mary and Joseph. For this reason, it was suggested, they had embarked on a pilgrimage to Rome to seek forgiveness — hence “Roma”.

Perhaps more accurate is their name in Central Europe — Sinti, which almost certainly is derived from “Sindh”. This theory is backed up by many aspects of Romani culture, particularly the language, which is closely related to Sanskrit. Why they set out on their epic westward journey, nobody really knows, but it was almost certainly triggered by the sort of persecution that has dogged their steps ever since.

Their “summer residences” had none of the luxuries that such a description would usually suggest — no verandas, fountains or rose gardens. Just tiny earth-floored hovels (ironically, this word is possibly related to the Hindi word “haveli” — which means private mansion) with a small hearth and a door. However, they do come with million-dollar views, and herb gardens that stretch from horizon to horizon.

IMG_2493-1-350x261Quite how old they are would be impossible to guess. But they did carry that sense of antiquity that you can almost taste in very old buildings. I like to think they dated from before the great migration.

The houses are built into the slopes, meaning that the packed earth roof seems to be just an extension of the hillside, a natural ledge on the incline. Approaching from above, it would be easy not to realise you were standing on top of somebody’s home.

image-1-300x300Even though they were all standing empty, it seemed somehow disrespectful to poke around too much, so after taking a few pictures, we headed down the slope to the waiting car.

About half way back to Srinigar — I was staying in a houseboat on the city’s Dal Lake — a turn in the road revealed a field full of tents. These were the neutral-coloured practical sort favoured by refugee agencies and the like. But this wasn’t any sort of humanitarian crisis, just the travelling kit of the returning Gypsies.

From the fleeting view I had, the camp was a cheerful place. Brightly dressed children darted around the tents like swallows on the wing, and women smiled and laughed as they stirred steaming cauldrons of food. Even the large flock of sheep that trimmed the grass around the site seemed content with their lot in life.

My guide seemed to pick up on my train of thought. “They are very happy now,” he said. “Only ten more days walking and they will be home again for the summer.”

22Jul/15

Cuban Elections, April 2015

ballot-paper19 April is election day in Cuba. The election is an ‘eleccion parcial’ – an election of delegates to the local assemblies (Municipal Assemblies of Popular Power).

The electoral process starts several weeks before, when local meetings are held to seek nominations for each constituency, which covers an area of roughly 10 blocks. There must be at least two candidates in each, and the winning candidate must have over 50% of the votes, or else a run-off election is run a month later. In this election there are 27379 candidates standing in 12589 constituencies across Cuba, and about 8 million people eligible to vote.

PionerosIt is considered a civic duty of every Cuban citizen aged 16 or over to vote, and turnout is high – around 95%. While each ballot is secret, the list of who has (and has not) cast their ballot is not, and it is normal for people who have not voted by the afternoon to get a knock on their door reminding them to turn out.

The integrity of each ballot box is ensured by the Pioneers – a youth organisation something like the Communist version of the Boy Scouts – on the basis that children should be incorruptible. Each ballot box is confirmed as empty before being sealed in the presence of at least two Pioneers. They then stand guard over the ballot box, giving a smart salute to each voter as he deposits his ballot paper. At least that’s the theory – when the cameras aren’t looking, it’s more likely to find a bored-looking child playing in a corner of the room.

campaign-materialElections at this level are a surprisingly non-political affair. Each candidate may or may not be a member of a political party, but both candidates and parties are banned from campaigning. Each candidate posts a single A4 sheet giving their educational and professional background but no statement of political policies or aims is given. The reasoning behind this is that it avoids the corruption perceived in big-money electioneering in other countries.

These local assemblies have responsibility for areas such as rubbish collection and repairing holes in roads. It is hard to please people in these rather unglamorous areas of public administration, especially given the very limited resources available.

Critics of the Cuban government say that the candidate selection process makes any electoral dissent all but impossible. However, in this election for the first time ever, there are candidates standing who are publicly active in the Cuban opposition.