Category Archives: Guest Stars

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.

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