Category Archives: Gareth

Articles from Gareth

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.

05May/16

A strange evening in the Ukraine

I have spent a lot of time in the Ukraine, had some great parties, met some pretty girls, seen some great sites, and it is true to say I genuinely love the country. I can also add one other little description about the place, it is one of the most corrupt countries I have ever been to, and one I have had lots of problems with the police in. Now whilst getting arrested is always memorable, much like sex you never forget your first time.

 

Losing my Kiev Prison Vplates

My first time in the Ukraine was way back in 2011 during our first Eurasian Adventure Tour. I remember being blown away by the beauty of Kiev, both the people and the scenery as well as the somewhat flavorsome nightlife. Kiev is a party town. We did Chernobyl, the ICBM base, lots of nights out and I remember thinking as we left Odessa heading to unrecognized state of Transnistria that I would someday come back.

A year later I planned to do just that. I had just been on a research trip to Armenia, Georgia and Nagorno-Karaback and my plan was to fly into Kiev two days early party a little bit than then meet up with the Eurasian group before they arrived for the tour.

 

The following tale occurs whilst I was OFF duty

 My first night in Kiev was spent by myself, now i’m not exactly a shrinking wallflower so decided that despite being alone I still fancied a night on the naughty soup. I went out discovered a few taverns, one of which had ladies that would dance whilst I enjoyed a wee tipple of vodka. The following day I awoke with a head worse for wear to meet two of my guests who had decided to do the same as me, come a few days early for a look around a wee drinky. The first fellow was a Brit of Indian extraction (this will come into play later), the second was a very mild mannered Spanish fellow. I am not sure how to describe him except to say that when he spoke it was like the first time I heard Susan Boyle. It was one of the chaps birthday so I asked casually how we liked to spend his birthdays, he replied without skipping a beat “strippers probably” in his midlands accent. Well as coincidences would have it merely an evening before I had discovered a strip joint a stones throw away from the hotel. We duly went to said establishment, drinks were drunk, credit cards were used and dollar bills were placed in many a place before we decided as a group it was time to move the party onto its next point of call.

 

All about the money

I would like to add at this point that unusually I had a lot of money with me. I was leading a tour, much of which needed to be paid in cash and I had thousands on me.

As we were walking along the street not too drunk (really) and not too loud (honestly) a policeman came up to me grabbed me by the arm and started to pull me away. At this juncture I started to protest at which point he produced a piece of paper which had been hand written in English stating it was illegal to be drunk in Kiev. Dear readers I am not sure if you have been to Kiev, but if you have it appears that it is illegal to be sober in the place. I digress. The mild mannered Spaniard then came over and in a mild mannered way tried to defuse the situation, at which point we were both thrown into the back of a police van. Our English friend of Indian extraction was left alone, we assume because of the bad reputation police have here for racism, something we would be able to ponder from the back of the meat wagon.

So there I was sitting in the back of the police van with my Spanish friend with realization that if they found the money in my pocket I would be screwed, so I started to shove it down my sock, an act that did not go unnoticed by the cops shining a light in the back of the van, asking me what I was doing.

So we arrive at scary looking Soviet dungeon style police station and are led inside. I decide that my best chance here would be to put on a posh English accent and demand to see my embassy, to which I receive a reply of “no embassy”. It is at this point I look up and realize what a colossus of a man this mighty Slav was. I am not exactly tall, but holy crap the cop was massive, he then starts pushing me into a room, and thus away from the Spaniard, I back into the room, a kind of interview type place at which point the cop slams the door closed again looks at me menacingly and says rather loudly “you understand me no embassy”. He stops. I stand there. There is a short silence. I am not sure what went through my head at this point, but I turn around walk calmly to the wall behind me, remove my glasses as if I were about to take a nap and I do it.

 

It is a fine line between genius and insanity

My head splits immediately in impact and i’m bleeding a fair bit, I turn around clutching my head with both my hands whilst clutching my glasses and scream “you hit me, you hit me”. Said officer looks like he has seen a ghost turns opens the door storms out to his colleague who is with the Spanish guy. I follow. I then start saying “he hit me” and acting quite hysterical. The Spaniard looks mortified, he catches my eye, I slip him a sly wink, he calms down, the two cops are now screaming at each other in Russian (back then most cops were Russian), before looking at the Spaniard and bellowing “you are fine, but your friend (he points at me) is fucking crazy”, “what”? A confused Spaniard replied. “GET OUT GET OUT GET OUT”. We did not need telling a a fourth time.

 

Bopping our way back to Kiev Hostel

We jogged about 3 blocks before realizing that firstly we were lost and that secondly we had got away with it. I pulled the Euro from my socks, we high fived, and went over what had just happened. It so happened that the Spaniard had a great sense of direction and we felt we it was not a place to stay in dark alleys. After 45 minutes or so there we were, on the final stretch to the hostel, the main square in Kiev, and more importantly the scene of the crime, just outside the strip club where we were arrested. I looked at the Spaniard our eyes locked in an exchange for what felt like an eternity, an exchange that can only happen to those who have been through something so momentous together, the the thousand yard stare, until I broke the silence with a sentence so profound it will live with both of us forever…”one for the road”, he nodded “ci”. And we did.

I was to run into that cop and many others over the following years in Kiev, but these are not stories for now. This is the story of me and my Spanish cellmate and the acting loco.

13Apr/16

Top 10 most memorable travellers that we all meet

Having been travelling for 20 years – being an expat for 15 and a travel agent for eight – I have pretty much met every breed of traveller known to man. Some of these are wonderful human beings, others less so – but they all add to that great travel experience, and leave some sort of impression.

Here is my personal top 10, which in no way reflects the opinion of anyone but myself and is meant to be firmly tongue in cheek!

The burning question is, which one are you?

10. Wastaman
9. The Cheque Splitter
8. The Dodgy Dealer
7. The How-did-you-ever-leave-your-house-let-alone-the-country
6. Spongebob Shithispants
5. Crazy Cookie Chick
4. The Budget Traveller
3. The Topper
2. The I'm So Fascinated by Asian Culture
1. The Guardian Angel
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10. Wastaman - Wastaman is, basically, a white man with dreadlocks. As Will from The Inbetweeners memorably said: “its not counter cultural; it screams of 'I've got a trust fund'”. Art indeed imitating life. Wastaman tends to be from the Home Counties of England, is rebelling against his family (Daddy is often a high-ranking policeman) and likes to think of himself as being “spiritual”. Wastaman is often heard saying things like: “People are people, man”. he is least likely to be heard saying: “Who fancies a beer? It's my round”. Do not employ Wastaman.
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29Aug/15

Taking part in the Rason Trade Fair

When planning our first trip for Paektu Cultural Exchange we explored a number of options to fit around the dates we had available, now whilst visiting the DPRK for Liberation Day, or the Laibach concert might have had more razzmatazz, we felt that doing a trip for the Rason International Trade Fair would offer for more chances to nor only learn more about the workings of the country, but also offer us more chances for cultural exchanges and interactions with the people of the country, we were not disappointed.

One of the main points of interest for us with taking this particular trip into Rason was that through the connections of PCE founder Michael Spavor, we would be offered the extremely rare opportunity of traveling in official, as opposed to tourist visas. Whilst this would not be as big of a deal in other countries in the DPRK, in theory at least this would afford us a much higher degree of freedom to travel independently, arrange our own itinerary, meet the people we wanted to meet, and even pick and pay for the restaurants of our own choosing. Again regular stuff for most countries, but for those who have followed the standard route of a Pyongyang, or Rason tour will understand, this is very far from the ordinary.

A second, and obvious point of interest, and our primary reason for visiting at this time was the Rason International Trade Fair. To give some background on the fair itself this was to be the 5th annual incarnation of the event, and as the hosts informed us the busiest as of yet. The main aim of the fair is to promote international trade and big business between the Rason SEZ, and the wider international community, a place where big deals can be made. Having visited the previous year my personal experience was that at the end level at least the reality was that it was much more focussed on end level consumer goods that can be purchased right away by local Koreans. Although with that being said there is always participation from a broad range of international companies, and it does offer a great opportunity to network.

A classic way to start any trip into Rason, or indeed the Yanbian Korean Prefecture is to stay at the legendary LiuJing Hotel, one of the two DPRK owned hotels in Yanji, full and kitted out with singing North Korean expat staff, Korean beer, and all the other little Korean things you learn to love after constant trips to the country. As some of the group were arriving later we started with a casual Korean meal in the hotel with a brief introduction and talk about the business opportunities in the country before an early night to prepare for our first day in country.

The first difference between a standard tour and going in on official visas is the transport element. A standard tourism package involves taking a private bus to the border, going through customs and immigration on both sides, before being met by your Korean guides, or as they are often wrongly described minders, before transferring buses and then going on your trip with pre-arranged meals, hotels and itinerary planned to an almost minute by minute fashion. On official visas, you get your bus in China, you drive through into the country, pick your own hotels and restaurants, and to an extent just get on with it, so on the morning of departure that was exactly what we did with our Chinese driver picking us up at the ripe old time of 7 am for the trip into Korea.

rason1No trip to Rason would be complete without talking about the fun that is customs and immigration. The Chinese side is fairly chilled, with them seemingly doing an almost over the top act in friendliness to try and offer a comparison with the other side. You will often hear about Rason being the only place in the country that is “visa free”, as a tourist this is technically true, with you having a tourist permit, but on official visas they literally check your name on a system, and thats it you stroll along and into the Korean zone. The Korean zone, to put it as politely as possible is different. It is quite bustling with Chinese businessmen and tourists, and what you bring into the country, such as books, USD sticks, cameras and computers are meticulously recorded, so they can be checked when you get out. This is not a quick process, taking at least an hour, but with the new immigration building having been put up, better than it has previously been.

Once through the official visa adventure continued with us heading into Rajin town with the two questions on our mind being where to sleep and where to eat, two things we had decided not to prior plan, and to see what was available. Whilst this might seem on the risqué side of things generally speaking there are a lot of decently priced hotels in the Rason SEZ that would fit our purposes. We headed to the Tongmyong Hotel, a place a few of us had previously visited. The place is very DPRK, with sea view rooms decorated in quite the retro fashion, as well as some cool little beer kiosks placed conveniently next to the sea view, and surrounded by the anthropomorphic cement pigs that litter the country. A good choice for the first night. For our dinner adventure we decided to go for it by visiting the outside barbecue restaurants in the centre of Rajin. Why? Because previously as tourists we had been told we could not eat here. We went, we ate, and it was wonderful, we finished the evening with a few beers overlooking the sea before an early night in preparation for the big day, the start of the trade fair.

For the trade fair we had decided that rather than just visit we would take part. The cost of renting a booth for the 4 day event is 600 Euro, so we headed straight to the event to set ourselves up. Armed with PCE literature, posters, business cards and some consumer goods to sell to the masses we set up the stall, which in our mind looked pretty plush, and certainly up to the standard of the other participants, we then departed the hall to be at the front for the opening ceremonies, where a number of high level Koreans gave speeches that were translated into English. Standard stuff, but very cool to be able and allowed to be part of.

As I previously said, whilst the trade fair is supposed to be about big business there is also a very strong angle towards consumer goods for Koreans, which means that the second the fair opens it goes crazy with people running around to see not only what is available, but more importantly what is being given away for free. In our wisdom we had decided to give away free PCE bottle openers, when word got out things got a little intense, and we had to start charging for them. Walking around the fair (without guides) was extremely interesting with us noting there being a lot more of an international flavour this year, with firms from China, Russia, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Canada and even Italy having stalls, although again the predominant theme still being consumer goods. During this first day we were able to arrange a number of interesting meetings and get a real feel for proceedings.

After leaving the fair we headed not only one of the highlights of a trip to Rason, but also one of the most unique aspects of visiting here, the bank to change money at the black markets rates, and the only private market in the country officially open to tourists.  Golden Triangle Bank, the first bank in the zone to deal with foreign exchange is where you currently change into local Won. The current exchange rate is 1300 to 1 RMB, or 15 cents $USD. To put this into context the largest denomination note produced in the country is 5000 Won, and the official exchange rate in Pyongyang is 100 to $1, therefore 50 bucks gets you a fair bit of cash. Private markets though common throughout the country are still quite a contentious subject with regards to the socialist system in the country, to some extent they officially do not exist, but in Rason you can go freely. For this trip we actually got a chance to go to the new 4 story private market apparently built by the Chinese and featuring store like elements, as well as a department store type element, but all run by women entrepreneurs working independently. A great chance to buy goodies, but also see the contemporary situation in the main special economic zone of the DPRK.

As a group with a booth we were entitled to 2 tickets to the official Rason banquet to celebrate the opening day of the fair, the problem being that our group consisted of 9 participants, not including the driver. Luckily group leader Michael not only speaks fluent Korean, but is also quite adept at the pulling of strings, so it was not too long before 9 tickets had been procured and we were hobnobbing with all the big players at the event. The dinner as expected was wonderful, and meeting major foreign business people and listening to their stories about doing business in the zone was priceless. For our second night we had transferred to another hotel, partly due to logistics, and partly just for a change of scenery. The hotel on question PiphaGak on Pipha Island is one of my favourites due to its retro karaoke/bar/club room, although on our first night we decided to go a little easy due to the schedule.

For day 2 we headed right back to the fair for another day of selling our products, checking out the booths we had not yet had time to see, attend a business seminar, and where possible arrange meetings with the people our group were interested in talking to. The seminar was extremely interesting, and useful, although with all these things a pinch of salt needs to be taken with what is said, and dare I say the expertise of PCE or a similar organization would also need to be sought if one were looking to do further investment in the zone. After leaving the fair we decided that a quick jump back onto the tourist trail would be a welcome change, and as we were on official visas decided we would again push the envelope by asking if we would be able to visit Rajin Train station, a place tourists are not usually allowed to go, we were given a yes so headed over there. The station like many buildings in Rason was built during Japanese occupation, and was not only interesting, but a good little break from what we had been doing. We then went to the Telecommunications centre to see what the current situation was with foreigners using the local phone network, and even 3G services. For those that know about Pyongyang, or have visited, you would probably be familiar with KoryoLink the joint venture between the DPRK, and Erascom from Egypt, but alas even if you are lucky enough to have one of these SIM cards they are of no use in Rason. The DPRK strangely actually has 3 networks. Now this could be a blog post in itself, but I will keep it as simple as possible. In “mainland” DPRK there is KoryoLink who provide 3G and have the monopoly on foreign users. They have been in the country about 3 years, but before KoryoLink there was Kumsan, a domestic company that largelly still has better nationwide coverage than KoryoLink. If you are out of Pyongyang your phone will often switch to this network, or to its 2G, or Edge. In Rason they have a third major network run by Thai company The Loxely Pacific Company that does not work with with the other two. Confused yet? Well I did not even begin to get onto the fixed line networks, which again would require a whole article. 3G in Rason has now been implemented from 2015 with a SIM card costing CNY 900 ($130) for the SIM card alone, not including the monthly fees that would follow, and alas no option for an Iphone. After a stroll in the park, and eating in another fabulous restaurant we decided to go for a Korean massage. If you have not tried a Korean massage, it is quite different, the woman train for 4 years to become qualified and whilst it feels quite brutal at the time you feel great afterwards. As this was our last night in the country we had to have a little bit of a party, so when we got back to the hotel we hit the Karaoke, put on the bubble machine and took it in turns either singing Korean songs, or letting the staff sing to us whilst knocking back Taedongang and Soju, the notorious SoMaek cocktail, a decent last night.

For our departure day we had to quickly pop back to the conference hall to sign some pre-arranged contracts before deciding to treat ourselves to lunch at the now infamous Czech beer bar. Last year the government of the Rason imported a full bar from the Czech Republic, as well as a Czech beer master and set up what is one of the more interesting bars in the zone, although the food was very much still of the Korean standard. After a few beers we fixed our exit stamps and over DPRK procedures before racing over to customs and immigration in the knowledge there was a storm on the way. We beat the storm, but guys leaving after us were apparently stuck in the country for a few days due to severe flooding blocking the roads.

We finished the trip with a night and a day hanging out on the Tumen border, checking out businesses, wandering along the border and purchasing a few last DPRK souvenirs. Overall a great first trip for PCE, with our official visas making this a very interesting delegation, and certainly not just a standard tourist trap trip.

17Aug/15

Take me Home, Country Road. Haggard Hookers on the Whores’ Highway.

Gareth Johnson set out on a road trip to discover more about one of the world’s most unlikely red light districts.

 

A few years ago, I chanced across a blog written by a dude who was cycling the backwater road from Varna to Burgas, in Bulgaria.

prostitutionOf course, he saw many interesting and unusual things along the way, but what particularly struck him were the numerous ladies who lined the quiet country roads. At first he thought they were waiting for buses or hitchhiking, but then he noticed their foxy style of dress and realised they were practising the World’s Oldest Profession.

Judging from his account, it seems obvious that Mr Cyclist didn’t stop to “chat” with any of the ladies, but his account is still one of the top google results if you Google “prostitution in Varna”.

When I first read the blog, I decided that if I ever found myself in Varna, I’d like to drive along the “Hooker Highway” to see if it was true. I was intrigued as to why these daytime ladies of the night were plying their trade alongside quiet country lanes.



This summer I found myself living in Varna (my decision to move there wasn’t related to the prostitutes). One day, my friend and I decided to set out on a road trip. In the interests of research and understanding more about the contemporary situation in Bulgaria — I suggested that we travel to Burgas along the winding rural roads. The driver agreed, and so the trip suddenly had a purpose — we would go searching for some mythical creatures.

sunny beachVarna and Burgas are Bulgaria’s major seaside tourist resorts, with Varna hosting Golden Sands and Burgas Sunny Beach — two places with a heavy party scene. Sunny Beach in particular is something of a poor man’s Ibiza and therefore highly popular with Brits aiming to get drunk. Both towns obviously cater for anything that tourists could possibly want, with cheap booze, drugs and prostitution high on the list. Having seen the trade played out quite openly in the streets of Varna, I was sceptical as to why any of the women would choose to work on country roads.

It was about noon before my designated driver and I hit the road. I felt that unless the prostitutes of Varna had union rules about going out in the midday sun, this would be a perfect time to spot the ladies. Less than 100 metres after turning onto the road the cycling blogger had described, there she was — standing in a lay-by and dressed like she was going to a party. Spotting us, she beckoned us over. With a cheerful wave in return, we declined her friendly offer, and continued along the road. In just a few minutes, we’d spotted another seven girls, and numerous cars pulled up along the roadside. (check out our YouTube link at the end).prostitutes

So now we knew, the ladies did actually exist. Now, I don’t want to be rude, but while Bulgarian woman tend to be really rather beautiful, these professional ladies were far from pretty. Haggard is perhaps the most polite description I can muster.

Their appearance and habits also raised some new questions. Where did they take their clients to make sexy time? How did they get to and from their places of work? And, of course, why did they set up shop on quiet country roads in the first place? These questions would largely be answered later.

As we continued for seven hours down the coast, we found that the first prossie pathway was far from unique. In fact, it seemed to be quite the norm, with these well-dressed ladies popping up on many other remote stretches of road.

One night we stayed in a countryside hotel, and on checking out the next morning we spotted an older gentleman with a big smile on his face checking in with a younger lady (not smiling). It seems that where there’s a will there’s a way, or rather in this instance where there’s a hooker, there’s a motel renting rooms by the hour.

As for how the lasses get to and from their places of work, I think that’s easy to surmise. Although we didn’t see any girls being dropped off or collected, it’s clear that they aren’t working freelance, and that the whole thing is organised by the sort of entrepreneurial gents more commonly known as pimps. They drop the ladies off in the morning, give them a sales target and then pick them up at night. After deducting their “reasonable expenses” my guess is that these kindly chaps sell the girls some smack to “help them sleep”. This would also explain their uniformly haggard appearance.

And so to the last question — what are they doing on remote country roads? The answer to this shines a light onto the recent history of Eastern Europe. During Soviet times, Bulgaria was poor, a corrupt but relatively benign dictatorship. It was (and is) a major route for goods flowing up from the capitalist south of Turkey and Greece to the vast Soviet empire to the north. Prostitution, as the world’s oldest profession, tends to be practised with pragmatism. It’s a way any poor girl, and usually the guy manipulating her, can earn easy money. In Bulgaria most Bulgarians didn’t have much cash, and the only foreigners coming into the country with hard currency were the truckers, who tended to favour the quiet country roads…

Like it or loathe it, you gotta love how creative capitalism can be.



26Jul/15

Living in the Last of the Soviet Union – a month in Transnistria

The Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic is a lovely place. It really is. What? You’ve never heard of it? It’s a small strip of land between Moldova (heard of that one?) and Ukraine.transnistria

Some people call it “a cold war relic”, others describe it as “the last remnant of the Soviet Union”. There are even those who like to say it’s “the only place in Europe that didn’t get the memo about the Berlin wall coming down.”

I first visited Transnistria — as it’s most often known — in 2010, when my travel company, Young Pioneer Tours, started to expand out of North Korea into some of the lesser-visited corners of the former Soviet empire. It was just one of the stops on an epic overland journey from Beijing, China, to Tirana, Albania.

Once you’ve survived the Trans Siberian across the vast Russian expanse, there are dozens of ways to get through Eastern Europe by train. But after hearing words like “relic” and “remnant” and “memo-missing”, I knew what route I had to take.

1So that November, I brought the first ever tourist group into the country. And, by Stalin’s moustache, wasn’t it an adventure? Strange flags, statues of Lenin, vodka for a dollar, and more hammers and sickles than you could shake a stick at. And if all that wasn’t enough, a cop pulled a gun on us. (But, like they say, he was more afraid of us than we were of him… and anyhow, it’s a long story, best said another day.)

So here I am now, five years later, writing this — and my love affair with this strange little place gets stronger every day.

So what is Transnistria? If you want to know the details, get on Google — but read multiple sources, because there’s a lot of misinformation out there.

But if you want my pocket-sized, abridged guide, here you go: Transnistria is a breakaway state populated mostly Russians and Ukrainians who fought a brief civil war against Moldova because they didn’t want to be part of their post-Soviet nation (Moldavians essentially are Romanians). It is a sliver of land on the far bank of the Dniester river (hence “Trans-Dniester”). The capital city is Tiraspol.

It is a largely unrecognised state. Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Nagorno-Karabakh have diplomatic missions, but these little-known places are also described as “Soviet remnants”. Apparently, they all “missed the memo”. In all these countries, there is a substantial passport-holding Russian population, and so the Kremlin tends to keep a paternal eye on their welfare.

Until 2012 Transnistria was run by President Smirnov, who despite often being accused of being a dictator, left peacefully after being democratically voted out of office. They miss him now.

So fast forward to the summer of 2015. I’m trying to chill out at my mum’s house in London, where despite the free accommodation I’m haemorrhaging money. If you like smoking, drinking and all the fine things of life, England just doesn’t work.

So, with a month until my next travel job, it dawned on me — Tiraspol in July!

There are exactly eight “expats” living in Tiraspol. Seven of them are professional footballers, who are paid ridiculous sums by the local oligarchs for their FC Sheriff Tiraspol vanity project. The eighth man is my mate, Tim.Gareth and Tim

Quite why he arrived here eight years ago to found a hostel, not even he can say. But he opened a new frontier in tourism, and it’s no surprise that he is now known as Tiraspol Tim. We became friends and business partners when I first visited, so when I called him from my mum’s house, he had all the answers. “No worries, I can sort an apartment, just $200 a month.” Perfect. He casually added that it would be typical “Soviet Style”. Sounds great, I thought.

As Transnistria doesn’t officially exist, it doesn’t have an airport. And because Moldova — the country it fought to be freed of — is the least visited country in Europe, getting here ain’t easy. I opted for Ryanair to Bucharest.

From here you can jump on the old Soviet train network to Moldova’s capital, Chisinau. This train goes once daily in both directions. It takes up to 16 hours, and is usually empty enough to mean you get your own room.

There used to be a great hostel in Chisinau run by a British guy, but sadly it closed a few years ago. The ones that are left are great if you love bedbugs, and hot water.

But it ain’t a problem, Chisinau is cheap. Hostels are less than ten bucks, and a double room in a classic old Soviet-style hotel won’t set you back much. If you want to splash out, go for the Hotel Cosmos, near the train station, for 25 Euros. It’s got all the “missed-the-memo” ambience you’d hope for, along with a splendidly cheap bar crowded with unusually friendly and beautiful women. Not the best place in the world, but fine for one night….

So three days later, I got a taxi to take me to the bus station. He was a young lad who had no issue with me smoking in the car. He seemed pretty cool, so I asked what he would charge me to drive me the two hours to Tiraspol.

“Twenty-five Euro”. Ok, I said. Let’s go. It was my first time crossing the border in a car, but the border was a doddle, and before I knew it I was with Tim at Tiraspol’s iconic 7 Frydays bar.

Time rolled by, and soon it was past 10pm. No so long ago, that meant ‘no more booze’. Well, technically. What it actually meant was knocking on a certain window in a certain alleyway… Soviet Values 1, Capitalist Decadence 1.

soviet style roomMy apartment was exactly as was promised — Soviet Style. Everything, and I mean everything (apart from the wireless router) dated from before the wall came down.

For the first few days, my pocketful of change did me proud. By God, it’s cheap here. But then, as it does, my cash ran out.

In a world with Visa, MasterCard, Amex and the rest (I even have UnionPay, the Chinese version), this isn’t usually much of a problem. But in this country that doesn’t officially exist, it is. Trans-Dniester has its own currency, the Transnistrian Rouble, a currency that is pegged to the dollar at a fixed exchange rate. It’s a currency that can’t be used anywhere outside the country, and it’s the only currency any place will take within the country. You simply can’t use cards anywhere. Apparently, there are a few cashpoints that dispense Russian Roubles (that then have to be exchanged), but they’re hard to find. I called Tim to ask him what I was to do, he gave a suggestion, and I went out to give it a try.

I headed to the Sheriff supermarket (we will talk about these guys later) armed with my bank card and my passport, queued about for half an hour, handed my card and passport to a lady, who took another half an hour filling in forms and signing scraps of paper. It was a very long 30 minutes, but I eventually had a pile of local Roubles. and like magic after a mere hours of waiting had my cash.

cashFlush with cash, I decided to do a little shopping in the Sheriff Supermarket. Remember that word Sheriff? Well Sheriff is THE company in Transnistria, and they own everything, car shops, gas stations, every supermarket and much more besides. They are what in the old times would be considered the state monolith, except they are private, and owned by ex-President’s son Smirnov Jnr, who — by sheer fluke, no doubt — created his business empire at the same time his daddy was president. To give him credit though, he also created a kick-ass football team — Sheriff FC — that win the league every year and have a great stadium.

Tiraspol Tim had told me that he would be busy for a few days as he had a group of Norwegians visiting for three days, and he would be showing them around. The next day I happened to bump into them and they told me that when they entered the country, the border guards had kept them for three hours thinking they were spies.

I found out the next day that the local KGB had been to check on them again, so they had decided to leave early. I found this a shame, not just for Tim, and the Norwegians, but most importantly it was a massive kick in the balls to the local tourist industry. Tim advised me to lie low for a few days, so I complied, chilling in my house using the surprisingly fast internet and catching up on work.

Following the lying low period, I decided to venture about by myself to check out my neighbourhood. This was actually extremely pleasant. It’s often a forgotten point about Soviet places, but they always have lovely parks and open spaces to liven up the often dull architecture.

As we rolled into my second week, I was starting to fall into my little routine — working throughout the day, doing a supermarket run at night, co, and then repeating the next day.

beerOn that point I will briefly discuss cost of living. It’s insane. Food costs next to nothing. Vodka is $1 a litre, beer about $1.10 for 2 litres and cigarettes are less than 35 cents. Tim explained that wages here average around $200 dollars a month. He also said that on occasion he had arranged Russian classes for foreigners for $10 an hour, only for the teachers not to show up. This is down to the old red curse — there’s very little to buy, what there is to buy is so cheap there’s no real yearning to work or earn more money. Positive, or negative? I guess it depends on your take on things.

After my self-inflicted exile, Tim insisted that we went to ‘the beach’. There are two beaches connected to the Dniester river, both with a sludgy muddy sand littered with Soviet era fairgrounds, swimming pools and cool little food and drink kiosks. Without wanting to come across as dirty old man (I’m still only 34, after all), the women of Tiraspol and Transnistria are frankly out of this world. They dress to the nines just to go to the supermarket, so a trip to the beach tends to be quite a treat, with the latest thong fashion being a definite nod to western decadence. Sadly for the ladies, they don’t get the same visual treat, as the gent’s beachwear of choice is usually tight budgie smugglers teamed with mighty bellies.

After the beach, we went for dinner and beers. Including transport I had spent $8 all day. And that was for two people, who were often surrounded by beautiful women. Not a bad result, all considered.

hostelI won’t dwell to much on my last few weeks in the country, as they just followed my familiar little routine, enlivened by trips to bars to hang out with Tim’s tourists and chilling out at the beach.

When I eventually did leave (vodka delayed my departure) I decided to take the bus. When I last did this four years ago, I had to pay a lot in bribes to get out, but this year I did things differently. I’d registered with the police and was given a special piece of paper. What was written on it, I don’t know, but it got me though the border without a word being spoken. And that was that, I no longer lived in Trans-Dniester.

To summarise, living in Transnistria was a lot more fun than I expected. I also found that it was even more Soviet than it appears. There are a lot of positive aspects to the country, which the government of the PMR can be proud of, such as the cost of living and decent public transport. But on the other hand there are the corrupt police registering your every movement and the local KGB hounding tourists out of the country. While the country get called the “last relic of the cold war” a more apt description would be that Transnistria looks like what the USSR would have done had Gorbachev’s glasnost and perestroika worked and the Union been saved. In that respect that it reminds me a lot of China. Mao, Lenin, or any number of Communist heroes might be looking at you from everywhere, democracy might be of secondary importance, but the actual political system is Wild-West capitalism where anything goes. Just don’t slag off the president, or his son.

24Jul/15

10 Bars To Visit Before You Die

No one lives forever…

(So here are 10 places to party in the meantime)

 

Having recently read an article about the “top 25 places to party before you die”, I was disappointed to see no mention of any of the places my travel firm, Young Pioneer Tours, likes to visit. Yes, we all know that developed countries like the US, and UK have some great bars — but what if your travel tastes lead you off the beaten track? Can you drink in Islamic states? Is there a party scene in North Korea? Can you be drunk in a land that doesn’t exist? Yes, yes and yes — and here’s how:

10. The DMZ Bar, Yangshuo, People’s Republic of China.
9. The Alba Hotel, Caracas, Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.
8. The Armenian Club, Tehran, Islamic Republic of Iran.
7. The Cave Bar, Trinidad, Republic of Cuba.
6. The Titanic Hotel, Vank, Nagorno-Karabakh Republic.
5. Ward Number 6 (Palata no 6), Kiev, Ukraine.
4. The Angeles Beach Club (ABC), Pampanga, Republic of the Philippines.
3. The Dining Car, Trans-Mongolian Railway, Russian Federation.
2. The Train Station Bar, Tiraspol, Transnistria (Pridnestrovskaia Moldavskaia Respublica — PMR).
1. The Diplomatic Club, Pyongyang, The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
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The DMZ BarOK, in the interests of full disclosure, I own this bar, so I admit I’m a tad biased. But let’s look at the facts — Yangshuo is the coolest place in China, and The DMZ Bar is the best bar in Yangshuo. It’s also the only North Korean themed bar on the planet, where you can sip ice-cold imported beer dressed in communist suits, surrounded by unique pictures of the DPRK, enjoying a great atmosphere that feels more like a local pub than anywhere else in China. It’s the place of legends, so pop in and say hello next time you’re in China.
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