Harry's Trails Around The World

Harry Travels World

On the road to North Korea...(2004)

Sept 11

 

Sept 11 dawned, a day now famous in history though I am not sure that fame is so entirely deserved – worse things have happened in the world that have gone entirely unnoticed (I love being politically incorrect). At any rate, this day I would get onto a plane with the absolute certainty it would not be hijacked. I checked out of the luxurious Swissotel and walked through the early morning Beijing streets to the hotel where the travel agency through which I was traveling was located. At the ground level were the Pyongyang Art Studios, selling paintings with North Korea themes which gave one an idea of what to expect – a girl among the sunflowers, two workers with a tractor.  

There some of the people in the group met and we headed off to the airport in taxis. I think this is a good point to introduce the people in the group (though the information here would be gathered through conversations that would ensue in the following days). It is thanks to these people that the 6 following days were the raving success they were. Here they are, those ‘mad 10 people’ who decided to enter the Film Festival Tour to North Korea. I present them in alphabetical order.

 

Christian and Eva were the only couple in the group, and in fact Eva the only girl which made her our mascot. Christian is 38, Eva, well, I never saw her passport! From Switzerland and Germany respectively, Eva rather dark in an attractive rather tomboyish way, Christian seemingly always ready to yodel, and through the days I kind of liked pulling his leg. They live in Bangkok where they, among other things, publish a magazine, she deals in directing advertisements for television and he also writes novels. Extremely pleasant to be with, and very well traveled, Christian’s portfolio included Somalia, Djibouti and Vanuatu, which made my mouth water and they always seemed on the go no matter where they were. They were chuffed at coming to North Korea and sending all their friends bizarre postcards.

 

Harry, well, that is me. I guess you know me already. I have always been labeled eccentric and crazy by my environment (apart from my mother, let me be fair), a title I have personally refused to accept. I just live life by my own rules, refuse to compromise and have an insatiable curiosity and desire to see things, and a sociability that comes off best in a group like this one was. My last year’s trip to Afghanistan was my ace card in this group of compulsive travellers and came up in conversation at least 4 times.

 

Henrik from Sweden looked very Swedish indeed, 30 years old, and he was the only one in the group who had been to North Korea before. He studied history and then became involved in East Asian studies, and could even read some Korean characters though he couldn’t tell us what they meant. Initially, one would get the impression that he is incredibly shy and withdrawn, but I think this was just a smokescreen to a very smooth personality with lots to say. He had a characteristic nod and closing of the eyes when he said something and always seemed to be smiling. He was the source of information on what is ‘politically correct behaviour’ in the North Korean context.

 

Lee was Chinese, which brought a welcome Asian into an otherwise western group. It surfaced that he is a friend of the travel agency’s owner and because he is involved in film making, wanted to have a ride to North Korea. While the rest of us huffed and puffed about the possibility of getting a visa, he decided to come on the trip a mere week before we were off, and easily got his. The youngest of a group (I think) at 29, and a very chatty, sociable guy – you have to be if you are a film-maker, no? – he was clearly not your average Chinese. He, like Henrik, also seemed to smile more than average, which is always a sign of an open person. Well traveled and familiar with Europe, I guess maybe he wanted to see North Korea to glimpse what China was 20 or 30 years ago and reminisce.

 

Lukas from Munich was the person I took longest to talk to really. In fact till the middle of the trip I think we hardly exchanged a word, but then we really got going to the extent that he is the only person I have sent text messages to following the journey’s end. Lukas was small in frame, short and very thin, and apparently feels uncomfortable in English which resulted in him not saying very much but observing with a keen eye. Being an Aquarius, this is thoroughly understandable. His reason for the trip was to scout the bizarre architecture, as he is a graphic designer and wanted to see what the Koreans have been up to.

 

We had two Michaels on the trip. One ended up being called Irish Michael although he is as Irish as I am (well, just a tiny bit more). Michael was the oldest in the group, 44 years old – in fact, a surprisingly young group this was. Tall and big (I mean really big!), this was the kind of super nice American which makes you like America despite its horrid policies. He was a real sweetie, a vast encyclopedia of knowledge on Korea. He had lived in South Korea, married a Taiwanese and now lives and works as a solicitor in Hong Kong. For 10 years he dreamed of going to North Korea but Americans are not allowed. Finally he managed to trace a grandmother born in Ireland and his Irish passport came through in July. He wasted no time.

 

English Michael was a really nice Brit. Now, to be honest, most Brits really suck (sorry Viv and Pat, you are rare exceptions) apart from the ones who realize what a horrid place the UK really is and escape, like Michael did. He went to South Korea in 1992 and has never lived in the UK since. He married a Korean and now lives in Hong Kong (as well) where he teaches in the film department. Tall, sporting an earring and longer hair than anybody in the group, it was really good to have a British accent to rival mine, plus this guy had a real sense of humour which we will always remember at the end of the trip (you’ll have to wait till I get this far in the narration).

 

Peter ended up being my room-mate (see below) so I got to know him closer than the rest though of all of us he was the most individualist and least keen on group behaviour, and although going off in one’s own direction was not possible in North Korea, I am sure he would have if he could. Peter lives in Meinz near Frankfurt and is a doctor, but he has the travel bug worse than I have and has been to 130 countries, which makes him the best traveled person I have ever met. Recently went on an expedition to Congo and after this trip would return to Germany to work for a week, and then go off to Papua New Guinea for a river adventure with two friends. Clearly, Peter, 39 and Harry, 32 spent the whole time talking about travel.

 

Yves is the first really nice Belgian I meet, and he redeems his otherwise dull and useless country. An artist and, I add, a philosopher with the ability for very deep thought, from Ostende, he was on a long trip which started in June through Russia, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and the whole of China, and would then continue on to Mongolia and Burma. Since he liked staying in hostels, I did wonder how he forked out the 1500 euro for 6 days, but I guess his curiosity got the better of him. Yves was the only dark guy in the group (apart from Lee – and I don’t count as dark as I have light eyes… once was even called blonde!) and had an obvious natural warmth and seemed unusually down to earth and fun-loving for an artist (and a Belgian).

 

The 10 of us all gathered at Beijing airport and made our way to the check-in counter to observe who the co-travellers on the flight would be. A truly mixed bunch. We had been warned (by Simon, our group organizer) that there would be a group of American military who apparently pay fortunes to go and seek bodies from the war. Indeed, there they were, very muscular and no-nonsense looking. Simon had said that these are not people to mess with, and should not be addressed no matter what – these are not the nicest Americans (to put it mildly). Other co-travellers included people obviously there for the film festival which meant a really international mix. A lady from Pakistan, a guy from Nigeria, you name it was on this flight.

 

Seeing the plane was the first great surprise. I had expected a Tupolev but instead got the Ilyushin 62, which is my favourite aircraft of all time, a stylish plane with four engines at the back. I specially designed my trip to India to fly the plane on Uzbekistan Airlines from Tashkent to Delhi, but now I got my second (and probably final) chance to fly on this true classic airliner. The air-hostesses looked lovely in a pink outfit and we were welcomed on board by music which sounded a bit like a funeral march, if I remember well. Some sort of anthemic music not fit for a flight. Next to me sat a Japanese lady shuffling UNICEF papers on malnutrition in North Korea. It seems 3 million people died in the crises in the mid ‘90s. 15% of the population. Not a thing you can make a joke about really.

 

We departed, ironically just as a Korean Air 777 ultra-modern jet had landed from Seoul. Loads of multiple food came out despite the mere 90 minutes of the flight. Food has never been so plentiful on board. Glancing over to the Japanese ladies’ papers on starving children was in stark contrast to the rice, beef (or is it chicken, who knows?) and other goodies on offer. I saved the Air Koryo sugar for my collection. Worth more than gold.

 

And soon, after a spate of low lying green mountains, we were descending. It all seemed very normal and ordinary from the plane. This would end up being my standard comment for the next 5 days. It all seems very normal. Only upon return to China did it become obvious that this was not entirely normal at all. We landed and then taxied across a vast expanse of land, actually seeing villagers walking by on a dirt-road by the runway. Clearly the airport is huge in the event of military necessity. Finally we passed a whole row of Air Koryo planes of Soviet origins, but in the actual tarmac by the terminal which sported the words Pyongyang, we were the only plane to be seen. This is not the centre of aviation activity.

 

First the health official came on board and took the bureaucratic health forms. I did in fact have a really bad cough by now courtesy of my $6 in Irkutsk, and luckily for me also had a pack of antibiotics from my mother which I decided to go for as a precaution. Getting sick in North Korea is simply, not a good idea. We then touched North Korean soil and were loaded onto ancient decrepit buses which took us the few meters to the terminal. As Henrik and I were the last to get onto our bus, standing, we were the first to get off and thus went through immigration really fast. And though this may be the hardest country in the world to enter, once you do have a visa, it is plain sailing.

The customs guy asked me if I had a mobile phone. These were strictly forbidden and would be confiscated upon arrival, so we all left our mobiles in Beijing at the travel agency. Also forbidden were video cameras (though this was not always the case) and cameras with a very strong zoom. And naturally not to be taken was anti-Korean literature. He had also been told that we can only take photographs where our guides allow us to, and certainly not from the bus. If we are seen, the people are obliged to report all photography to the police and then the guides, not we, will get into serious trouble. We also signed a declaration that we are not journalists and in no way will write any articles on this trip.

The customs suspiciously searched my bag to discover a tiny magnet which I had bought as a souvenir in Irkutsk for my friend Michael. Luckily it was not confiscated and so, since I only had my rucksack and had no luggage to wait for, I was out first and waited. No sign of the guides.

Soon more from the group gathered and the guides promptly appeared amidst the mass of North Koreans. They were all sporting pins with an image of their Great Leader, Kim Il Sung, who lead them to independence and greatness and successfully protected their country against the American imperialists (their words, not mine). They are all obliged to wear the pin at all times and losing it means filing a report which is probably not the most pleasant experience.

All groups into North Korea, but even foreigners who travel individually, have two guides who are constantly with them. Our guides were Mr Lee, aged 46, bespectacled, quite tall (my height) and rather cheerful and humorous actually and Ms. Park (let’s call her Honey, which is what she is known as in English I think), 25, with a bit of a lisp, and incredibly sweet in my eyes. Not pretty but just sweet, the kind of person you would want to save and who awakens my fatherly instincts. I could only understand their English half the time, but they did try, and in retrospect, they did do a very good job within the constraints of the system. Henrik later told us that last time his guides had not been half as nice, and upon return to Beijing Simon noted how Mr Lee was his favourite guide, so it seems we really were fortunate indeed.

 

Let the tour begin! We got into the KITC (Korea International Tourism Corporation) mini-bus which we would love to hate over the next days as it became our home practically and were on the way into town. Familiar communist blocks of the Irkutsk/Belgrade/Zagreb kind made themselves visible from the beginning, only that here they had an added dimension. I swear to God, they all looked burned. The buildings were white (whitish) but then the area of the floors, where the windows were, seemed really black, which gave the impression from far away of what remains when an area has been burned. The whole town of Pyongyang is full of these odd buildings. In fact, this is almost the only thing it is full of. Since it was completely leveled in the war, everything had to be rebuilt. I guess they figured they would raise buildings as a tribute to the eternal flame – buildings reminiscent of burning.

 

The first things that were obvious from the start were – no cars in the wide boulevards. At times we were the only vehicle going down, along with a bus or a Russian-built trolley. A complete lack of traffic lights (I guess they are not necessary in this city of 2 million). And no shops. We looked in vain at the street but all we saw was buildings, many of which looked empty and oddly silent, and then the pavement, which was also eerily quiet (ok, it was a Saturday, maybe people have gone out of town for a barbecue?) And no advertisements. Far from the neon and the crowded streets of Beijing, this was ideal for the contemplative soul.

 

We reach the Arch of Triumph which is bigger than its namesake in Paris and stands in the middle of a boulevard. I do not recall exactly what triumph they commemorate but it was built in 1982 if I am not mistaken. Across this bizarre square structure was a magnificent mosaic. It looked just like a painting until you really stared from very close up. It took a year and a half to make this visual feast, depicting the great leader on a podium addressing the people. And the people themselves are cheering of course, the farm girl, the worker, and it is all in glorious technicolour to give the air of a great celebration. The many mosaics we would witness and photograph nonstop in the next few days were, in fact, the only obvious piece of colour in what was otherwise a very grey experience. The weather also did not do much to help, unlike Beijing, here it was overcast and noticeably cooler.

 

A trolleybus crammed with people went by. This seemed rather familiar. The people looked at us, we looked back at them. They all had one head, two hands and two legs. I don’t know what we were expecting to see. I guess the mystique of the place makes you feel sometimes you will see something really outlandish, but I suppose for the people, everyday routine is just that, and they don’t know anything better.

 

We were then bussed to the area around the palace of the people (I think that’s what it is called) which is basically a big library which we would visit on another day. There was an open fountain here and some sculptures, but what drew our attention was a wedding party taking their photographs. The bride wore pink, the groom a grey monolithic suit just like our guide Mr Lee (we were later told this is the height of fashion in Pyongyang, and Lee our Chinese participant actually bought one to forever remember Pyongyang fashions). Then the wedding group approached our clicking cameras near the sculptures and….wouldn’t you know it? We ended up all taking group photos with these unknown Korean people. Christian swore this was all staged and faked to make us feel the true welcome of the Korean people. We will never really know. It all seemed very spontaneous and the bride was really lost and silent like she had freaked out – who are these people and where will they be showing me o my wedding day? – but it did seem too good to be true.

 

Coincidentally (not) there was a stall with a single bouquet of flowers. We were told that here we must buy the flowers which we will then take to the monument of the Great Leader, which is what all Koreans and foreigners must do, otherwise it is bad behaviour. English Michael contributed the 5 euro for the bouquet at this so obviously planted stand with just one bouquet of flowers. I wonder how they do it? At 4.37 the group will arrive so be there with the bouquet at 4.33 and you can go home at 4.39? I really don’t know.

 

Two schoolgirls in uniform (on a Saturday?) went past the minivan and greeted me. I greeted them back. A spontaneous encounter and they were smiling away and then looking back to see if I am still looking, oblivious to the realities of  adult life.

 

We were bussed to the monument of the Great Leader, Kim Il Sung. There he stands, a golden statue, with his one arm extended forward indicating progress. Flanked on both sides at a distance, two panels with sculptures, one of a more war-like nature, soldiers with guns to protect the motherland, the other of a more agrarian picture, women carrying baskets and grains etc. Michael laid the flowers by the leader and then we all assembled in a long line and bowed. Such is the local custom. This is the first time I bow to anybody but I guess this is a good start, after all it’s to a Great Leader of a great nation… The site of the monument on a hill offered good views of Pyongyang which was an endless array of concrete blocks plus a few visible monuments, all divided by a rather wide river which cut the town in two.

 

We soon passed this river, as we were going to our hotel, the Yangkado. Located on an island in the middle of the river, conveniently next to the international cinema where the film festival would be held, this hotel was ideal for isolating all of us so we do not secretly run into the town at night. It was a 47-story hotel with a revolving restaurant on top which did not revolve one inch during our stay. The lobby area was as bizarre as the whole construction, giving off a really cold, characterless feeling (probably the intention). Oddly no portrait of the great leader, just two red glass flowers and the corridor to the lifts straight ahead, to the right a big odd aquarium which sported a sea-turtle we all pitied, trapped there in its tiny space with nowhere to go. To the left, the remainder of the vast lobby, leading on to more endless corridors with no character. Yves pronounced ‘this is the best hotel I have ever been to’ so I shudder to think where he has been sleeping. I can say hands down this was the most freaky hotel I have ever been in.

 

Supposedly four stars, I would give it two at best. We were asked whether we wanted single rooms, but that would incur an extra charge of 30 euro a night which my pocket did not need. Besides having a roommate for the first time in years was all the fun. So I ended up with Peter and we went up to the site of our room. OK it was clean if unexciting but from the 23rd floor, we did have a panoramic view of the town. Most noticeably of what would have been one of the world’s largest hotels, a pyramid structure which was never completed and stands there, in the middle of everything it overshadows, utterly grey, its top floors without windows and a crane to top it all. A monument to the general oddity of the place.

 

Our room did have a TV and we did get some satellite channels. Not imperialist CNN but yes to BBC World, which was a surprise. Despite the plane food for lunch, the site of all this bizarreness made us all really hungry. So we had dinner at the Chinese restaurant of the hotel, not by choice. Our tour was all inclusive and all meals were therefore in the programme, but we never had any say in where we go. The Chinese meal started off with Russian salad and then included a Wiener Scnitzel kind of construction, then going off on other culinary tangents. The two waitresses, clad in an unattractive blue uniform, were expressionless as they served the food. Maybe the North Koreans have excelled in robotics and, unknown to the rest of the world, have perfected the world’s first robo-waiter? (no need for robo-cop, there is no crime here).

 

We got to know each other from this dinner onwards, trying to digest everything we had seen though loads would still come, we were sure. A lot of the group were avid drinkers , but Peter and I didn’t drink, so on this occasion, and on another few nights, we called it a night and went up to the room. He had flown in from Germany just the night before so was understandably exhausted and, as everyone who knows me well knows, I can sleep anywhere, anytime!

 

So following a visit to the hotel’s bookshop, which sported books such as ‘The Leader and his people’, ‘Glorious 50 years’, ‘I am a Korean’ and loads of teachings of the great leader, a bookshop where I could not resist buying the book on Korean Film where the themes are split into anti-Japanese and anti-American, we called it a night and went to bed. Not without turning on the TV to the local channel to witness the building of a new pipeline in the middle of the countryside and the valiant effort of the workers in successfully offering their services to the Party.

 

Goodnight Pyongyang. Goodness knows what we can expect tomorrow.

 

Sept 12

 

We awaken to the sight of fog and rain. The monster hotel in the background is even more monstrous as the fog covers its peak and it looks like the tower of Babel, leading nowhere into the skies.

 

This is the first of the five deadly breakfasts we will be faced with. Breakfast will be served in the dreary Chinese restaurant, though its contents will be neither Chinese, nor western and certainly not of the ‘have a nice day’ variety. The same Hitler-like waitresses, seemingly ready to pounce on us, begrudgingly serve a second serving of the generally undrinkeable coffee. We are also given an egg and two dry pieces of toast with one little portion of jam each. Requests for a second jam are occasionally satisfied and occasionally shunned. When Peter requests a third cup of coffee, despite him doing it three times, he is completely ignored. Here, the customer is not always right – only the Great Leader is right and obviously our ration is only one jam, and maybe if we are really nice, two cups of coffee.

 

Today the day tour of Pyongyang is scheduled but this is completely impossible in the pouring rain, and being a Sunday activities are further limited as the museums are closed. In fact, once again the motto ‘no bad without good’ comes to the rescue. Because of the pouring rain they don’t really have anything to do with us, but it is the official opening ceremony of the 9th Pyongyang Film Festival, to which no group of tourists has ever been. While all efforts to get invited to the opening seemed futile, it appears that the rain serves its purpose and at 3 p.m. we will in fact be the first tour group in history to attend the opening ceremony of the Pyongyang Film Festival. Oh what bliss.

 

But it is still morning and one thing we can do in the rain is see the Pyongyang underground. We are taken to one stop, and will be using the tube just for one stop to get the gist of it. We are escorted into the station where an interactive, would you believe it, map has all the stations on the two lines. By clicking on a station name, you get flashing lights of what train you need to get there. Isn’t this ultra-modern technology stupendous?

 

We are not allowed to take pictures of the ticket-collectors, who being in uniform are regarded as quasi-military (thus strictly no photography), but we can take anything else. And believe me, this is a photo-worthy experience. Once the escalator (told you, ultra-modern) takes us way down to the depths of Pyongyang’s sub-terrain, we are all stupefied at the truly artistic wonder of the station. Flanked on all sides by mosaics, one depicts a horse and a factory symbolizing industry and progress, the other workers gazing at an electricity pillar, one holds a newspaper (must keep oneself informed of the Party news!), the other his hat on his back/. Another mosaic shows villagers on bicycles in the fields with a small town in the background and a banner – which would later become familiar as it is everywhere, to be seen at each town, village or just in the middle of the countryside – which basically exudes the nation’s greatness. The chandeliers are quite perfect, huge constructions fit for a palace.

 

The trains themselves, apparently (Hendrik said this) East German, were less impressive. Surprising was that the people ignored us completely. Perhaps they didn’t know how to quite react to this bunch of 10 foreigners, so they ignored our existence, a few going down the platform to read the newspapers which are laid out on long boards so they can be read while you wait (more efficient than handing freebies out I think). We took a ride on the underlit carriage for a while. I asked myself at this point what the hell am I doing here? One occasionally gets these glimpses of wondering when one experiences something ultra bizarre on his travels.

 

The second station was quite different in style, depicting a more serene urban scene. Pyongyang I suppose those the buildings were white – the mosaic could not have been made by someone colour-blind given the good use of all the colours, could it? In this station the lights were different, lots of small bulbs popping in different directions. The idea here, we were told, is to evoke fireworks and celebration. You could have fooled me.

 

They opened the Folk Museum specially for us. I can just picture the scene in my mind of the phone ringing and the museum people whisked out of bed on a rainy Sunday morning without any choice just to show their exhibits to a group of foreigners who would much rather look at more politically linked propaganda than anything to do with Korean pre-history. The guide at the museum wore a long green robe in traditional style as she gave us the lowdown on the really boring stuff there, which Honey then attempted to translate into a language that was foreign for most of the group anyway. Interestingly the museum guide was also followed by another woman, perhaps as a check that she is not to say anything improper, who knows. Some of us gave up after floor two or seeing pottery made 500 years ago (hell, we have pottery made 3000 years ago, beat that!), and ended up gazing outside the window into the rain, to the cold concrete of the pavement opposite where there were no cars at all, just the occasional unfortunate passer-by holding an umbrella.

 

After an hour or so and the necessary visit to the gift-shop (all the gift-shops in the subsequent places had the exact same range of kitschy, uninteresting stuff ranging from some Korean dolls to fans to a collection of some books, objectively and clearly stating the truth about Korea. The books are what most of the people in the group went for most.

 

Lunch was a surreal experience as well, as we were taken to a place called BBQ Duck. They serve the meat raw and you cook it live on the fire, which is good fun really. Loads of deadly soju – a local drink that could bring the Titanic down (were there any Koreans on the Titanic?…hmmm) – was served and I think only Peter and I, the teetotalers of the group, escaped its influence. On the way back to the hotel everyone was convinced there was a mild sedative in the air as we were all so sleepy. But if you ask me, the soju took the butler’s role here…

 

Let the Film Festival begin. On the same island as our hotel is located the Pyongyang International Cinema where the opening ceremony would be held. Despite the really gloomy weather, after a small rest we were all in a mood for this hilarious thing, and braved the rain to take pictures of the logo, which is a blue globe with the number 9 in the middle, from which a flame in the shape of a filmreel points to the sky. Inspiring. Outside the cinema, paintings presumably from famous Korean films showing the brave aviator wearing goggles, the army girl wearing her beret and looking rather soulful, the working girl with a bunch of flowers. We were made to stand outside while the preparations to the inside were being made. Probably they had planned the parade outdoors but they rain which brought us luck, brought them the misfortune of managing this event inside. The girls were lined up sexily, to the one side wearing a more traditional costume in yellows, greens and reds and to the middle sporting a bloody sexy blue uniform up to the knees, blue hats and then white Wellington boots. Man, these girls were really sexy. And then the signal was given, we were taken inside and the girls promptly started doing their thing like in a parade, expertly handling their batons and throwing it in the air while sporting an eternal welcoming smile. The filmmakers were lined up, all dressed elegantly in suits, and then there was us, sloppily dressed tourists. The cameras taking us for the evening news bulletin would probably have to edit us out for the shot. Clearly, however, we WERE going to be on the news judging by all the attention we (i.e. the filmmakers) got.

 

We were then taken to the hall where the seats were not exactly multiplex style. A mass of Koreans, probably the important people given the honour of attending this, were already in the hall. Had they missed all the parade, was that meant only for us? There were some chairs lined on the stage and then a load of people came out, some Korean, a couple of westerners, one Indian-looking gentleman (who I then found out was Nepalese). They were rattling away in Korean, first one gentleman, then another, and then when the Nepalese and a western guy spoke there was simultaneous translation into Korean so we could get nothing of it. The film people in front of us had been given earphones – I wonder if there was a double translation from English to Korean and then back to English for them – but we were left just admiring the scene and how amazingly seriously it was taken by all, when we were on the brink of a hysterical laughter attack. We all rolled our eyes at each other, perhaps more for the fact that this was taken so deadly seriously by everybody, even the western filmmakers (who were probably glad they found somewhere to show their miserable films). Did nobody get the joke of it?

 

Following the speeches there was a 10 minute break before the opener of the festival, the Egyptian film mafia. We were desperate for the loo and, after some miscommunication, English Michael, Yves and I headed down to what was a scene out of another world. Masses of Korean men outside the loos squatting and smoking. The smoke was so vast that you could not breathe. Go past them into the smelly urinals for a quickie while holding your breath. All these men are clad in the same ‘stylish’ suit as Mr. Lee, grey monochrome. The smoke hurts my eyes as well as my whole system. Arghhh..

 

The Egyptian film is in English but is translated on the spot into Korean. Luckily there are French subtitles or else what would we understand? Not that it would matter. It appears all of us in the group took a nap at least at some point in the film, and I was no exception. The film itself was a Z-rate action film about a secret agent, probably not much better than my home made films of a few years back. In time it would become clear that the film festival was less a festival and more a collection of any film whose content was generally inoffensive, bland or highly suitable for the cause. This Egyptian piece of crap had references to the motherland and how it is important to put her before your self-interest and selfish goals. Clearly a valuable lesson to be learnt by everyone in the world.

 

Dinner was the best so far. We were taken to a place we would have never found even with a map, isolated in the back woods of Pyongyang, but the meal itself was a bit better than what we had had before, and this time service was with a great smile. At last there were some noodles to be eaten, which came as a welcome change to the fish and meat. We even had a choice! (the only choice we were given). Hot noodle or cold noodle? At my table, Yves, Peter and I went for the hot but Henrik was more adventurous, though he then claimed to be full and didn’t do justice to the cold noodle. One of the waitresses was a true beauty of the kind model scouts would seek. At one point in the meal she took to the Karaoke stand in front of us, and, accompanying the video screen showing the grand snow-capped mountains of North Korea, burst into song. We burst into camera-clicking, especially for this lovely girl. Following her, all the waitresses took their turn singing, our clicking diminishing according to the looks of the girl (not singing ability). The evening culminated into loads of clapping when Honey sung her song and then we forced Mr Lee to go for it as well, which he did with a smile and good humour, thus breaking the ice between us completely and setting a good relationship for the rest of the trip. Lee, our Chinese traveler, also sang a song which is both Korean and Chinese, an indication of the similarity of the two  countries. In between the karaoke, we listened to the recorded playing instrumental versions of songs such as ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’, Áve Maria’, ‘Ýankee Doodle Dandy’ (!!!!) – a very broad selection of completely disparate and irrelevant tunes. Clearly, these indicate the international nature of North Korea within the world community – not.

 

End of day two. Do I like this or not? I honestly can’t say. At times I feel like I am in the twilight zone completely. At others it all seems so entirely natural and normal.

 

Sept 13

 

The morning is no better than yesterday weather-wise, but today we don’t really need to worry so much as film viewing is going to dominate the day, punctuated with the little bits of the city tour left over from yesterday. Following the usual breakfast routine – expressionless robo girls in blue uniforms and the struggle for more jam and cups of coffee – we are off to visit the birthplace of Kim Il Sung, born 1912 in a little cottage by the river, just a few kilometers from Pyongyang. The area has been developed and is probably an area of pilgrimage for the average North Korean, though the place itself, completely redone as it was destroyed anyway, looks little more than a barn to our sleepy eyes. The gift-shop is not particularly thrilling either and though a little drive up the green leafy hill should allow for views of Pyongyang, the early morning fog just allows us to photograph the river and ourselves. Lee tries Mr. Lee’s suit and definitively decides to purchase one.

 

We are now going to a cinema within the city. I don’t even think it is a real cinema, for it looks more like a general hall. The lobby area sports an exhibition on – one guess - … you guessed it. The Great Leader through the years and all he has done. The Great Leader with children, with foreign delegations, the Great leader writing books, the leader addressing the crowds, an illustration of the Leader with his mother when he was a revolutionary, pictures from the Mass Games, the biggest organized parade in the world, foreigners reading the Great Leaders’ books, the greatness of North Koreans’ military aviation fleet… We stare at this completely in awe, nowhere else can this sort of thing be found…

 

We then enter the already full hall and are stared upon by a the whole hall. The film starts instantly. Fortunately there are English subtitles to this Russian film called My Dear Little Star. In fact a very poignant anti-war film about a girl whose boyfriend is sent to the war in Chechnia and loses his legs there, it gives us the impression that it was chosen because the girl shows true integrity of character, staying faithful and true to her boyfriend and not giving in to the advances of rich yuppie-like type – the rotten capitalist. The happy-ending went down well in the hall, and off we were, feeling we had seen something worthwhile, to visit the Palace of the People (this is my name for it because it really seems to be like that). The weather has changed and is, finally, sunny. This is the first of the sun we see in Pyongyang.

 

Basically a huge library, built like an ancient pagoda and coloured yellow, we are taken on a tour of this great building, opened in the early 1980s. In the entrance a huge mosaic of the Great Leader and then escalators leading up above. We are taken to a variety of study rooms to see what they are like, it all seems rather normal really except for the lift which has its own operator to take you up and down. No hanky panky in the library, that’s for sure. In one room we are introduced to the professor. He sits there eagerly awaiting questions from the people. When the people read something they don’t understand, they can come to the professor and be further enlightened. This is too much for Eva, who with a smirk begs for a picture of Christian shaking the professor’s hand. The professor in all seriousness and pride agrees, and off we go to another room to marvel at the final word of technology audio/video systems. The audio system plays cassettes so you can learn languages or just listen to music (no CD’s though).

 

Wouldn’t you know even the library has a gift shop! This one is rather better than the others and features a collection of stamps as well. I get a set of aviation stamps which are truly valuable to me – nice old Ilyushins and Tupolevs in Air Korea colours. From the gift shop there is a balcony which gives a great view of central Pyongyang. In front of us is the main square, flanked by a building with the North Korean flag to the left, a building with the emblem of the revolution (the hammer, the sickle and the pen symbolizing the worker, the farmer and the intellectual) to the right, two further buildings with revolutionary motif banners on them, then the river, and then behind it the huge Juche Tower – this is basically like a huge grey stick with a red flame on top. I thin Honey said it was 180 meters tall but maybe I remember wrong. We will go there in the evening to have a closer look.

 

At the ground floor of the library there is an exhibition of international books. Who said Pyongyang was boring? All these cool events there at the same time! There are stalls from places as far as Nigeria and India, but most people know where the good stall is – the British Embassy in Pyongyang’s stall attracts by far the largest crowd. Not quite the imperialist enemy but a strong runner up, this surprises me actually. The books on display are basically English-language books. How about continuing my career in Pyongyang??? Hmmmm…

 

Lunch is at the hotel today and then we are bussed to the international cinema for yet another film. Here a bit of an incident emerges as we are meant to be seeing a Thai film at 5. But we all want as much as possible in town, while Eva and Christian who live in Thailand really do not want to watch a Thai film. Alternative plans are made to watch a Hong Kong film at 4. Then Christian, on behalf of the group in a way, dares suggest that we do not watch another film at all but just go into town. Mr Lee explodes in his own way, explaining how this is a group, we cannot do what we want, things have to be planned… We shut up and accept our fate. Hong Kong it will be.

 

This one is the lamest of all, a Hong Kong action film called the Heroic Duo which would be straight-to-video everywhere else. There is commotion at the cinema as the 10 of us (plus 2 guides) took the seats of some ticket-holders probably and there is much confusion – but they stand in the end it appears. It’s more and more apparent that this is not quite as high caliber as Cannes, much to my complete and utter surprise. What is most interesting in this film (as I was not sleepy) is the collective audience reaction to this happening in the film. A whine when the girl is hurt, cheers when the baddies are in trouble. Not quite the western audience collective reaction, I think we are being taught not to react to anything anymore. Unknown to me, I sit next to a Korean gentleman who I am then told is one of the greatest stars of the country. So there guys, I have sat next to North Korea’s Gregory Peck. I can now die a satisfied man.

 

In the evening we go to the Juche Tower which is an imposing monument at a lovely location. There are plaques there from all the Juche study groups in the world, from countries like Sierra Leone, Guyana, Uganda and of course all European ones. There is a Greek-Korean Friendship Association, founded in 1979 the plaque indicates. Don’t these Greeks have a life to lead? Oh well, I better shut up here. The site of the Juche monument (whose flame is lit at night in such a way so that it looks like a real flame in the night sky) is terrific, just on the river, which makes for a romantic sunset scene. Loads of cyclists are going by, there is a park on both sides, a fisherman is trying his luck in the water, the pretty library pagoda is on the other side. For a moment here, I think we all forget we are in a place known for bizarreness, we just admire the scene which could be anywhere and is really pretty.

 

As night slowly falls we are taken to the monument for the 50th anniversary of the Workers’ Party. Built in 1995, it sports the hammer, sickle and pen upon a round panel (not unlike the one I had seen in Ulan Bator) and inside has some terrific engravings of North Korean themes. On the other side of this monument, following a long, long expanse of an avenue come park is the statue of Kim Il Sung where we had bowed on day one. This is not coincidental – nothing in North Korea is a coincidence it would appear. They are built so as to face each other, the one faces east and the other west it seems, there is some logic to it but don’t ask and I won’t lie…

 

That evening again we eat in the hotel – unsatisfactorily as always. The meals are always a complete mismash with no logic, and the only indication that it is all over is the soup, which comes last. There is no dessert. Just as well I brought three packets of Chinese Maltesers with me for my sugar intake or else I would be really suffering. That evening I make my first appearance at the hotel’s tea room -  a misnomer for bar, but I guess bar would sound too decadent – and so sit around with the rest of the guys and talk about travel. There was a hope that one of the famous actors would come and we would have a chat with them, but in the end they are too busy… Ah, actors are temperamental even in North Korea! But it’s a nice evening even without them, and then Honey and Mr. Lee join us as well. Despite the fact that having the guides with you all the time can be really odd, these two are a cheerful lot and not bent on too much propaganda, more keen on understanding us and going through the rhetoric sleepily, not passionately, which says something in itself. It appears Honey is getting married next year and wants to enter the diplomatic service. You wouldn’t know that behind the sweet girl who has been wearing the same green knitted sweater for 2 days (and will be wearing it for the following two), there is an ambitious cookie. I guess people always have a personality and a character, and no system, however odd, can take that away from the human being.

Bits from Japan... (2005)

Day 4 - December 19.
 
This was 'tour day' in Kyoto. It is strange how many people there are who are willing and able to take a tour of Kyoto in the middle of winter. There must have been around 25 of us who filled the bus, most of us Westerners really, couples, people with children. After this tour I have concluded that I will never take one again, ever ever. They are overpriced and you just end up getting on and off buses without getting much out of it. At any rate, we were bused around from one temple to the other on that day, and by the end of it I didnt want to see another temple as long as I live. Surely there is more to Japan than this.
The highlight of the day was the Golden Pavilion, which is to Japan what the Taj is to India, the makings of a postcard, a pavillion in a small lake. We were lucky enough to get a view of it within the snow, which was ever so lovely, a perfect picture of nature in its greens and reds overshadowed by the white.
The imperial palace was quite disappointing. It seems the Japanese prove their power (or did, back then) by understating, and the structures are not impressive in the sense of majestic or grand. Rather simple wooden buildings which were prone to often burn down, with large quarters and open spaces proving the power of the ones within. It is the gardens that surround these that are the most beautiful, though not on a day when you need to wiggle your toes to deal with the heat.
In the afternoon the tour continues to Nara, the capital in the 8th century before it moved to Kyoto. This is the site of a big Buddhist temple where deer loaf around freely which are a favourite with the kids who feed them, pat them and generally go crazy. By this time I have had enough of temples and am looking for a distraction. Which I find. The Japanese have a custom of placing a lucky wooden thing, it looks rectangular almost, at a place outside the temple for good luck. And one of those, lo and behold, is in Greek. Just 5 days before, it seems, a lady called Katerina happened to be in Nara and wishes us all a happy life with much joy and health in the years to come. Presumably she wrote it not imagining that someone would be reading it 5 days later, understanding the message and appreciating it immensely. Why cant people give such wishes on a daily basis back home? Does she have to come to Nara to make out her plaque outside the temple?
I am still jetlagged and fighting to stay awake. I wake up at 4 this morning, a slight improvement I think. Today the great adventure of the bullet train is due.
 
Day 5 - December 20
 
Indeed, I buy my ticket without much trouble. Everything is done so that the minimum of conversation is needed. The word for bullet train in Japanese is 'Shinkansen' so all you need to say is Shinkansen - Hiroshima. And there you go, service with a smile. It is a hefty 70 euros for a mere hour and a half. But wait a minute. This hour and a half disguises the fact that Hiroshima is almost 400 kilometres away. At such speeds, Athens to Thessaloniki would be 2 hours instead of the current five and a half. Need I say more?
The train is 5 minutes late. This is clearly not Switzerland. But it is not full and despite the fact that I save some pennies by getting a seat without a reservation, I get a seat without a hassle. One does not feel the speed of the train. My Serbian vocabulary keeps me company amidst daydreaming, and soon enough we pass mountains and small towns that all look quite alike, and then, almost exactly at noon, we are in Hiroshima.
I have searched the net and more or less found where my hotel is. I dont have a guide to the town, but apparently this place sports trams. Which is a good beginning, trams have always been my favourite. So there I am, riding tram number one to an unknown direction really, vaguely guessing the location of the hotel.
Nobody has prepared be for the surprise of Hiroshima. This town is just lovely. It is the Amsterdam of Japan, with canals everywhere and quaint little bridges crossing them. The centre is typical Japanese with the big buildings, but then take a small lane to the right or left and before long you will meet another canal. The weather is terrifically sunny, and even though I get off at the wrong stop and am completely confused with my heavy rucksack full of airplane magazines, somehow with the help of a young Japanese school student who knows the words for right and left in English, I am guided to my hotel a few paces away. Given I had only looked at the map on the net for a few seconds, I am pleased with myself.
The hotel was chosen because it is located just opposite the peace memorial. This is a huge park in general and the memorial is simple and sombre, and, 4 days before Christmas, I am the only visitor - this is not a Xmasy site at all. Inside the underground structure, one walks in a circular fashion down a circular path punctuated by small plaques giving a laconic account of what happened on August 6, 1945. Then one reaches the memorial which is very simple and silent, aimed at evoking a contemplative attitude. I guess 140.000 dead in one go is a pretty large amount of people indeed. Even the tsunami didnt do that, did it?
At any rate once you leave this part, there is an electronic database and you can search the names of all the dead, alphabetically ordered with a photo and a description of their name. I decide to search those with a surname alphabetically closest to mine. And it appears that there is a whole spate of Mitsuda's who perished, including a 20-year old worker, an elderly lady, and many more, whose photographs are their claim to fame in a not-so-happy moment in history.
The park also has further attractions for the visitor, including the remains of the Atomic Dome as it is called, almost directly under the epicentre, which has been kept as it was after the bomb hit it. I guess ruins have always appealed to me. There is also a flame, a monument for the children with the signs 'peace' and a clock commemorating the dead.
This is the main site and I have already done it by 2.30. What next? I walk through the centre and a hill in the distance catches my fancy as there is a silver looking pagoda on it. Can I get there? Maybe so. In fact I am really tireless. It takes me about an hour to walk past the station and to the hill and then it is a heavy climb up quite some steps to reach the summit. I dont find the pagoda, but from the top here, where there is a small temple, I get a panoramic view of Hiroshima, with the sea in the distance. Click. Ideal photo opportunity.
I crash in the room after dark, entirely defeated by fatigue. Only to wake up at 9, go for a walk to get night pictures of the atomic dome, and then struggle with the lack of sleep for most of the first hours of the morning. I have a plan for tomorrow. The plan is called MIyajima.
 
Day 6 - December 21.
 
I had never heard of Miyajima. Neither have you. But the brochure advertising the Kyoto tours also mentioned this, one of the 3 most beautiful spots in Japan, as one of its tours. Pity not to do it when it is so close to Hiroshima. And it is another bright day. Miyajima is an island just a 10-minute ferry ride from the end of the tram line, which is about 50 minutes from the centre of town. This in itself is an adventure, a chance to see the expanse of Hiroshima, which is very liveable, very civilised, much like the impression I get of the whole of Japan. I never expected I would make it on a small ferry here and get off on the island, which must be a great attraction in the summer, but now, in the middle of winter, is much like Mykonos would be in December. Shops closed and an air of serenity, far from anything terrestrial. Miyajima is renowned here for a shrine, with a Greek P-like structure actually coming out of the water and visible from quite afar, making another perfect postcard opportunity. The island is inhabited, it is not only the shrine, and is also populated by deer, who meet you as you get off the pier and happily accompany you as you go off to photograph the five-storey pagoda and the tiny little roads of village life in Japan.
There are also parks here, making it an eco-tourism paradise. What possesses me to go mountain-climbing on a day like this is beyond me. But I do. I take the cable-car up to the top of a hill, from where it is about a kilometre to the top of the mountain of the island. I here voices from afar on my lonely trail. It is a huge group of young boyscouts, who greet me individually as our paths cross, a smile on their youthful faces making the whole experience a pure thrill. At the peak there is the usual temple and more deer, and from here one gets a panoramic view of Hiroshima in the distance and also Shikoku island lying to the south.
It is a 2.5 kilometre trail downhill to the village. Thinking about it now, this was madness, all alone on a path which is slippery due to the icy snow, and then also under canopies of trees and wildlife running all over which could have overpowered me if they so desired. But hell, I will do it. A little exercise on Miyajima never hurt anybody. And sure enough I do, and make it down to safety to meet the boyscouts eating lunch and greeting me again with their smiles.
Why go back to Hiroshima when there is more that can be done? The brochure to Miyajima also advertises a place called Iwakuni, about 20 minutes further away once one crosses back to the mainland. Apparently there is an impressive bridge in Iwakuni. So, my dear Katerina who made it to Nara, did you do Iwakuni as well? I dont think so. The ticket person at the station is most helpful and rather surprised to hear Iwakuni instead of Hiroshima. Indeed I am the only westerner in this small town, which, nevertheless, has its department stores and its buses and its Mister Donut outlet just like anywhere else.
In order to orient oneself one merely needs to take a look at the maps outside the railway station. There are bits in English, which require considerable intelligence to be deciphered, but somehow I gathered that walking to the famous bridge was out of the question as it was about 5 kms away. But thats what the bus is for.
So here is Harry on the bus at Iwakuni. How crazy can it get? It takes me past streets and houses I was probably never meant to see until finally the glorious bridge bestows its glory onto me as well. An old grandma taps my back. She hands me my woolen cap which I inadvertedly dropped on the bus. How kind of her. And on the whole, I dont have a bad word to say about any of the Japanese I came across. Always smiling and polite and willing to help despite the extreme cultural and linguistic gap.
By the way, Iwakuni is a surprise. There is more than just the bridge. On the other side there is a whole complex of temples and canals leading to a ropeway that takes you up the hill to a pagoda. When it works, that is. On December 21 as the weather changes and it starts raining, there cannot be many takers, so it is shut.
I have made it to my favourite of places. The kind of forgotten backwater I like best. Long live Iwakuni. I vow to return to it when the ropeway works and conquer that pagoda at the top of the hill. Maybe the grandma who gave me my cap will no longer be alive, but I will honour her in visiting her town again.
The irony of all this detour was that I never saw Hiroshima Castle, which is the landmark of the town. Oh well, some other time. Back to sleep in the darkness with an even chillier air signalling a snowstorm. Tomorrow I will be conquering my last industrialised country left. The Republic of Korea.

The beginning of an African adventure

Written in March 2007.

It seems quite incredible as I sit here in sweltering Djibouti that a mere two weeks ago this trip started and that then I was quite cool and 7 countries poorer. This trip does not, in fact, begin in an odd, exotic, far flung destination. It begins in my very own Greecem with a swan song to the person I used to be, the English language examiner, and a two-day quick stint doing these exams in the remote location of Sitia on the easternmost tip of Crete. None of my flights in the depths of Africa for the past 2 weeks have been as late as the short hop to Crete on the completely, shamefully, decrepit Olympic Airlines. But finally my 50-something English colleague (typical oral examiner fare I would say) and I (untypical fare to say the least) landed in Iraklion and made our way into the already prebooked taxi for the two hour drive to Sitia, which is as far from civilisation in Greece as you can get. The impressively rugged mountains crashing down into the alluring blue sea, rather choppy on that day, made me remember that I am, ultimately, cursed to love my country as much as I want to hate it. We past resorts that in the summer time are the haven for masses of tourists from the north of all classes, from the party hungry English have-nots to the Russian wealthy. Soon too I would be a tourist from the north, after all anyone European can only be to the north of Africa. We got to Sitia as the sun was almost down and hurriedly prepared to examine orally (this is not suggestive) 30-odd children aged between 12 and 15 to see if they can say anything at all in English. Their provincial attitude and cheeriness reminded me that not everybody in Greece is Athenian, thank goodness. Most of the students passed. It would be difficult for them to fail at that level, although a couple succeeded in that seemingly impossible task by not even being able to say 'what is the telephone number'?

Once the session was over I made for a souvlaki, typically Greek and stuffed with garlic and fried potatoes. It would be a while till I would have a souvlaki again, I thought (until next noon, when I tried another from the same place). I remarked that prices in the provinces are rather encouraging as well, as is the behaviour of shopkeepers who are polite and interested looking rather than bored, rude or aggressive as are the ways of the capital.

The next morning, in a pause from the written exams, I made my way through the unassuming little streets of the self-effacing, forgotten port all the way up to the citadel (which is not that far up), which wouldnt quite make Lonely Planet material, but did afford a pleasant view to the town, once again the sea quietly ending its voyage on the promenade with a quiet (the wind has died down) crash of the waves. There was a couple wondering about in the citadel. They must be Albanians, I thought. Why would any Greeks run around and trample on the overgrown green grass of the almost destroyed citadel and marvel at the mountains afar? Daisies were everywhere amidst the grass. Spring has come. But I wont be there to see this spring in Greece either. My voyage has to continue and the world must come to a close...

 

Only a few hours later, not enough time for me to go back home, rather switching suitcases at the airport thanks to the eternal aid of my parents, a plane would make a night landing in Cairo at the most horrid time of 2.30 am. Surprisingly, given that the flight is only one and a half hours long, I have not been in Egypt since 1985, thus honoring my ban which was the result of a) raw chicken at the Nile Hilton and b) stepping in spit (wearing only sneakers) in Port Said, which was just too much for a 13-year old to bear. The ban had lasted well but had to make way for a greater cause: the need to acquire visas for other countries, and that is one thing that Cairo would be good for. Besides, a true globetrotter has to be open minded. Travel bans cannot really feature in his head.

 

It was an easy drive through Cairo's mercifully empty streets to the Nile Hilton. I had decided to return to the scene of the crime and would spend 3 nights at this most central hotel, a bit of a classic in Cairo, where every tour group and middle age tourist not on a budget has made it. No, I am not yet middle age. I hope. The road downtown took us through tunnels which seemed rather sturdy and Cairo did not appear in the least crowded or chaotic at 3.30 am. Then again, which city would? There were, nevertheless, more cars than you would think on the road. We had to get petrol on the way as the Lada I was in had already consumed its limit. And then it hit me: this place is cheap. Only 20 cents for a litre of petrol? What other surprises will Egypt have in store?

 

I was too stingy to reserve a room for that first half-night, and knew only too well what would be in store then. A sleepless night. The receptionist was ever so polite, even apologetic, but hey, it was my stinginess really, so I only had myself to blame. I made my way to the scene of the crime of the raw chicken (I actually remember it clearly, it was after the visit to the national museum which is next door, 22 years back) and got mistaken for one of a group of American tourists who had risen early in order to take a day tour somewhere or other. At least if I managed to get a visa to Sudan, as planned, there would be no American tourists in the next country. I drank 7 coffees at the cafe to keep awake till dawn. And once it dawned, decided to be daring. Mission one: get an Eritrean visa. Where is the consulate? In an area called Mohandisen. The map of the lonely planet gave me the general direction of the place, and the receptionist wrote the address in arabic on a slip of paper. And out I was, along with the sun, for a long exploration walk. The challenge would be to find the consulate without the need for a taxi.

 

You know me well enough. I did it. I walked north and crossed the Nile in glittering sunshine as the first traffic gave the initial signs of what chaos might truly mean. I crossed the islet of Zamalek (little knowing I would return that same night in quite a different mode) and then headed to the said area without a clue of where I was going. Luckily Egyptians, and especially security guards of which there are thousands everywhere in the town, must rank among the friendliest people on the planet. I only have the best to say about them. Sign language helped me make my way through endless roads with blocks of flats which looked not as bad as I had expected. There was just one problem in my escapade. Guess what happens after 7 cups of coffee? Where does one take a leak at 7 am when no McDonalds is open yet? (I crossed one on the way). So I did what I have not done before. I was a desperate man, you must understand. I looked around the countless buildings I passed, and then found an open garage. And in I went, underground, and quite disgustingly did what my education has certainly never suggested is appropriate to be done. Right there, at the corner inside the garagem next to normal people's automobiles. Now you know why Egypt is so smelly. Stingy tourists on late night flights are peeing in their parking lots. The people of Egypt are innocent.

 

Finally I made my way deeper into the area which was obviously not the hole of the earth. I mean even Eritrea houses its consulate somewhere decent. The houses were much like those in Jordan or Lebanon, at least in areas of a certain class. The cars looked perfectly fine to me. No poverty so far seen.

 

The news at the Eritrean consulate, after all that effort, was rather disappointing. They wanted a letter from my embassy 'recommending' me. Sudan needed the same, I knew that. Oh bollocks. The Greek embassy was closed on a Sunday, observing Greek working hours, while all the other places were open, and closed on the Friday that the Greeks insisted on staying open on. So day one of bureaucracy wasted. I only had two more days to get it all done or else the trip as planned would go down the toilet.

 

I took a taxi back (it had been an almost two-hour walk) and crashed in bed, getting a room which would be fit for a queen (I mean a head of state queen). It was really huge, with a sitting room area separate from the bedroom and two TVs, plus a huge bathroom. The hotel had something unmistakeably 70s about it, both the exterior which reminded me of James Bond films (sets of intrigue) and the interior. zzzz. Sleep has never been more welcome.

 

There were two very different contacts I made in Egypt. For the record, even though you all know what a slut I can be, I shall say it now, I didn't touch either of them ok? They were just good company during my time there. The first one I met that same afternoon and he was a 21-year old studying to be a tour guide. Given his field of study, it is perhaps rather quizzing that he was only capable of showing me around malls and cafes, and completely lacking in any sense of direction, with me usually pointing out which way things are. Having said that, that first day we had a pleasing coffee at Costa Cafe (the same chain they have in Harrow where I used to work) which was hardly getting familiar with Egyptian culture. The guy, named Bisho, was Christian (coptic) which made for an interesting twist too. The age barrier, though sometimes irrelevant, this time did make communication somewhat limited, especially as he had never left Egypt whereas I was about to reach 160 countries within the next month. But he took to calling me Mr. Greece, and I am never adverse to a good compliment.

 

I was rather wrecked, but did find the stamina to meet with Moe, aka Mohammed, who is not Coptic in case you were wondering, but I would take to calling him Mr Egypt if I may. Moe was 30 and came along in a nice car and sporting designer clothes, and in a smooth manner off we drove down the night streets of Cairo, which at this time looked especially bright in the neon, and especially chaotic with all the hooting. This was my first real glimpse of the place in 'not dazed' mode. He took me to a place on Zamalek the island, which is the centre of trendy Cairo nightlife. Nowhere to be seen squalor and poverty. Instead, just by the river, this huge nightclub/restaurant in true Arabian style with low cushions making you feel you are almost sitting on the floor and low tables, and a deliberate tent-like roof, all devised to evoke Arabia. The menu choices included sushi, which is as unarabian as you can get. We ended up going for the all-arabian club sandwich and a nice cocktail, and Moe, who I dont need to mention here belongs to the well-defined upper sratum, and I were hitting it off really well indeed. He was doing an MBA at the same time as working in a high flying position and making plans for career moves taking him to the US, which he would be in a position to manage I was sure. He told me all about Egypt's golden age in the 60s, when girls would be in mini-skirts and the country was the cultural capital of a vast region. The 80s and early 90s were the worse period according to him, while now, what was happening was religious revival, a return to women wearing veils which they wouldnt have ever dreamt of in the swinging 60s. How did he feel about that as a good moslem? Ambivalent. At least it kept crime away. Which I guess is true. None of the girls at this venue were wearing the head-dress, let it be known. The night ended at 12.30, we just had so much to say that time flew by. But next day would be busy for me, and I was stressed. And additionally I was feeling guilty that I was here, in the city of pyramids and impressive mosques and the great Egyptian museum and how much of this would I see? Hopefully at least one. Sneak preview for you guys: None. I am ashamed of myself.

 

The  next day was 'run to embassies' day. I started off with the Greek consulate which is slam bang in downtown i.e. walking distance from the hotel. I was there before opening time but was admitted inside having a Greek passport, thus avoiding the hordes of visa-hopefuls outside. I waited and waited and finally after one and a half hour, the rather pretty and exceptionally friendly girl produced the letters that were necessary. Now, they should have read 'We embassy of Greece, would request that your embassy assists Mr X in getting the visa for your country etc etc'. Instead, what did I get? 'The Greek government does not oppose travel to any country for private persons and we do not require from the citizens of your country to provide a letter from your embassy in support of their visa application (my note: we do require a shithoad of things which Sudan and Eritrea luckily dont from Greeks) so we would kindly request you refrain from asking our citizens for such letters in the future on a bilateral basis. Seriously, that is the letter I got, in two copies, one for Sudan, one for Eritrea. No mention of my name. I had visions of me causing a diplomatic episode, but it seems the UK and Iran are keeping all the limelight to themselves these days.

 

On to the Sudan embassy quick. Of course you have to bargain with the taxi drivers who are ripping you off anyway, but it is so cheap it seems ridiculous to bother. At some point in the taxi I take my sunglasses off and start wiping them with my T-shirt (more as a reflex) and what does the taxi driver do? he immediately produces a tissue for me. This is the kindness of the nation that is all gone in Europe, outside the most remote village I fear...

 

The Sudan embassy was a miserable place with surly looking guards and a waiting room that had the architecture of a sauna and the temperature of one too. All the people there were Sudanis one could tell since they were so much darker than anyone else on the street. However, the visa process was clear enough. $100, passport, letter from embassy and a photo. $100???? Oh no. I forgot to bring my $. In all the mad rush, I forgot the crucial money. In the end, I made to a bank, changed back some Egyptian pounds to $ and happily got the visa to what would become my 151th country. I know this travelogue doesn't give much 'travel' so far, but be patient. When we get to Sudan, you will be dying for my impressions. Dont hold your breath or go booking any tickets yet though (this is kind advice in case you cant wait). From there run to the Eritrea embassy (taxi this time) where they now know me. Here it is cheapo, only $30 and here they want it in local currency, not like Sudan which doesnt grant US citizens visas, but will only accept payment in their currency. Crazy. For the Eritrea visa I must wait till tomorrow and feel rather uncomfortable without my passport in hand. Oh well.

 

Bisho comes along and suggests we head for the City Stars Mall. It is too late for the pyramids and clearly the mall is the choice venue in the town.Hmmm. This decision, however, is not without benefits. We opt for a busride from the centre all the way to where the mall is, in Nasr City, not far from the airport. The route means plenty of photo opportunities as I take a seat by the open window and start clicking away to take unsuspecting old men smoking the sisha at the corner of their shops, to mosques and churches we pass by to panoramic views of the Cairo traffic, which is notorious for a reason. We pass, among others, the 1973 war panorama which exhibits Egyptian airplanes that fought (and lost) against Israel back in another world. We end up getting off and walking 10 minutes in the heat at which point a mall is the only conceivable thing I want to see (who needs the pyramids in the heat, a smoothie is more like it). Indeed the trip has been worth it. The glitzy City Stars mall, built on 3 or 4 levels is all that one could wish of a mall, and I go in for two mint smoothies and a sinful cheesecake. I have come to the conclusion in the end, that mall tourism is by far the most entertaining kind. If there were such a concept right now in Djibouti, trust me, that is where I would head for. But right now, my choices are between expensive French food or the Chinaman and I think I will opt for the latter. I have starved myself all day to save money and some chow main will be most welcome.

 

And if I have tired you, worry not. I have way too much time in Djibouti, which means all the time in the world to give you every single detail of what follows, which doesnt include any more malls, only one more visa application, but plenty of new people, and certainly enough sites to boggle the mind even if I didnt make the pyramids...

Travelogue: Tuvalu

Greetings to all from the most isolated country in the world...

 

Finally guys and girls I can say that my dream is close to coming true. By landing in Funafuti, Tuvalu, my aim of doing all the world's independent countries seems closer than ever, as the hardest place has been done... Have never heard where Tuvalu is? Well, don't worry, it's not that your geography is bad...most people haven't either. It is a string of 9 islands in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, about 1000 kms or so north of Fiji. Isolated and unknown to the world, this country is actually independent believe it or not, though here on Funafuti you will struggle to find evidence of embassies and an international atmosphere...The name means 'group of eight islands' - did they count wrong? Well, maybe, although only 8 of the nine are inhabited.

 

Getting here is not easy. There is only one way, and that is the twice-weekly flight of Air Fiji from Suva, Fiji. And that is it. That means that whether you like it or not, you are stuck in Tuvalu for a minimum of 3 days...so bring books with you! The air ticket is not cheap....700 euros return for the 2 and a half hour flight, but it's a monopoly so there is no choice. Air Fiji gave me the best gift since the millennium by flying me here on a Convair 580. For those who have no idea about aviation, the Convair is for plane fans what discovering a new set of pyramids would be for an archeologist. A true vintage aircraft, when I saw the plane I was in seventh heaven and I couldn't resist asking to go and see the cockpit in-flight. The plane was built in 1956! I seem to remember that JAT Yugoslav Airlines, whose memorabilia I collect, used this same plane on its routes from the late '50s up to the mid 60s, after which they were withdrawn. And these same planes still fly down in the Pacific, and they are smooth with loads of legroom and rectangular windows. A true beauty brought us to Funafuti!

 

What does this place look like you may ask...well. It is an atoll, which means there is sea on all sides and a small slip of land. From north to south it must be about 15 kms maximum, so it isn't THAT small in length, but the width is nowhere more than 800 meters I think and that is only at the centre, at most other parts it is probably about 200 meters wide. The runway is short and this is also the greatest part guys. If you have ever dreamed of driving, running or playing football on a runway, this is where to do it! The airport only operates two days a week after all, and the rest of the time, especially in the afternoons, the length of the runway becomes a field for all sorts of sports. Different groups of teams come out with their volley balls, footballs and off they are playing away! This is also probably the most exciting activity here, apart from swimming in the blue seas (which is only possible on the one side of the island which is more protected, the other is pure open ocean). Still, I am objective, the seas in Greece are the best ever, I can say that objectively and my opinion as a world traveller has to count...

 

Are there any buildings here? Sure there are. I am staying at the only hotel of the island, built by the Taiwanese. Next to the hotel is the large government building, also built by the Taiwanese. You see, poor Taiwan needs all the support it can get in having itself recognised as independent from China. So Pacific islands are ideal allies, they are countries after all. In return, Taiwan deals with building and helping the community. It is the only country to have an embassy in Tuvalu. Apart from the hotel and the big government buildings which are at the airport area, a 20 minute walk through the not so crowded main road will lead you to the main school, the hospital and - gasp - there is even a college here, a subsidiary of the University of the South Pacific. I could easily get a job here, they are desperate. But would I survive Tuvalu?

 

I think not. There is nothing to do here apart from swim and talk to the other guests at the hotel, who are the same people who were on the plane. I have befriended Cho, a Korean journalist who has come to write an article about the place and who today is getting an interview from the prime-minister (not so difficult to arrange if you give a gift or two). I await tonight to hear what juicy information he got. Cho is a true traveller. At 43, he confessed how he secretly longs to dump both his wife and his job, and take his motorbike and travel around the world - but he probably won?t. That would be true freedom. My stories of nearly having reached all countries in the world have him gasp. The other guests of the hotel are a mysterious group of 4 Americans I think, whose purpose here is not clear at all. In the midst of all this, the television in the hotel lobby (there are none in the rooms) blasts from the South Pacific games which are taking place in Samoa. 'Nations' such as Guam, Niue, Cook Islands, French Polynesia and Tuvalu, among others, are competing in this regions version of the Olympics. Yesterday I caught sight of the Fijian girls beating their Norfolk Island counterparts in basketballs. It looked like an amateur junior high school game.

 

Tomorrow Cho and I will do the only 'touristy' activity there is, take a trip to some near outlying rocks which are known as the 'conservation area'. The boat trip and a swim there will have to keep us going for the day. Otherwise I have my Serbian novels, already downed 'Daughter of the Moon' (Meseceva Kci) and am now reading about a spotty would-be punk teenager growing up in Belgrade in 1991 - the backdrop of the palm trees and the quiet of the ocean could not be a greater contrast to what I am reading in the book about the onset of war and the dreadful public transport in Eastern Europe. It's all so far away now.

 

Today I for the first time broke the promise I made my mother at the age of 13. That was - to never ride a motorbike. I don?t think she imagined then that I would be on Funafuti Atoll though. I rented a bike for the daily price of 3 euros to do the whole island. It's funny how liberating riding that thing can be. Somewhere inside me there is a biker craving to be released. At least today he was on Tuvalu, and I merrily went to the southern and northern tips of the island, occasionally pausing to take pictures of the very beautiful graves full of flowers, of the many children eager to pose, often with their blue and white school uniform on, other times naked ready to dive into the sea, or other times lying on a hammock by their one-story, open homes. The island is dirty though, sadly, and despite the many coconuts and palms, the impression of the dirt hits one.

 

There are only about 200 tourists here a year, and a total of about 1000 or so foreign visitors. So this is not exactly the centre of the world. But from here the world seems so far. At night, after dinner with Cho, I sit on the balcony of the hotel room and there is only one sound - the ocean, powerful, harmonious and ever threatening. Tuvalu will eventually disappear from the map as the sea level rises, but it will last out for a few more years. If you really want to reach the final frontier, this is it.

 

Tuvalu is my 177th country, and that means I only have 17 more to go to complete my aim of all independent countries of the world. With some luck, I will land in Vanuatu, another island nation, this Sunday, and that will also be the last nation of Oceania done. That will only leave Africa and those precious Maldives that I have so diligently saved for my honeymoon. If that ever comes. Many have asked me: what will you do when you finish up?

  

Tuvalu ? part II

 

So many people seem to have liked the first Tuvalu missive that I can't help but complete the description with some more stories from that wonderful place, now so far away as I sit in horrid Suva, Fiji, where it is dirty, raining and full of capitalistic influences combined with a curious New Delhi atmosphere (half the population here are from India, brought over by the British for the plantations...and they stayed).

 

On Wednesday night as Cho and I were having dinner and briefly talking about his encounter with the prime-minister who was not in the least concerned about global warming it appears, the waitress came to our table and told us of her woes. She is Tuvaluan but her parents moved to Nauru in 1982. Haven't heard of Nauru either? Well, you are forgiven... I was there a week ago. Along with Tuvalu, it is the smallest state in the world in terms of population, only that unlike Tuvalu, Nauru is just one island in the middle of the ocean. And once upon a time it was rich, because it had the world's greatest phosphate reserves. So they started mining the phosphate, and workers were needed from all over. Poor Tuvaluans, like the waitresses parents, moved there to work. So even in the Pacific there are labourers moving along. The waitress was reminiscing her happy days when Nauru was rich and she grew up in an international environment with workers from Philippines, China etc. Then the phosphate reserves started being depleted...and the workers left. Now Nauru is a financial disaster and, with no planning as to the future and absolutely no other activities in the economy, it is basically the world's greatest prison, literally, miles away from anywhere else - Australia sends would-be asylum-seekers to Nauru where they are stuck for years... The waitress then told us how she had trouble integrating into Tuvaluan society. She couldn't speak the language properly and found the environment too incestuous it seems. So there. Human problems are universal no matter where you are...

 

On Thursday (yesterday) Cho and I took to the 'conservation area'. This was not a cheap excursion but boy was it worth it. The little boat with two local guys who profited from the occasion by also fishing quite a number of fish on the way, as well as huge shells from the depths of the marine bed, took about 40 minutes to reach one of the tiny uninhabited atolls. A small island, sand all around with rich vegetation in the middle. Remember Tom Hanks in Castaway? Well that is it. The only sign on the sand were our footsteps, but the atoll was far from dead...it is an ecosystem of unbelievable variety. There were thousands of birds flying above the jungle-like trees in the centre of the atoll. On the sand we saw loads of live shells - I had never actually seen 'shells' walking. We made friends with a crab with intense red eyes which seemed particularly keen on clawing Cho for some reason. And we even witnessed a water snake which got scared by our presence and ran away under some rocks for shelter. It took us about 7 minutes to circle the entire atoll, walking in between the sand, the corals which marked the border of the sea, and then a moon-like rocky area at the one end of the atoll. We took longer than 7 minutes just wandering about and marvelling at the pristine beauty of the place. Then our guides gave us masks and a breathing mechanism we attached to our mouths, and in the water we were, swimming and looking at the reefs. The reefs are magnificent. Not only do you see fish of all colours, occasionally in flocks, occasionally wandering alone, you also see the corals which branch out in thousands of shapes and tints of the rainbow, reds, greens, even blues. I couldn't get enough of this, and my enthusiasm was not even watered down when our guides remembered to tell us that occasionally there are sharks in the area. As you can guess, no Jaws visited us there.

 

We got awfully sunburned and my nose is the colour of a lobster at the moment, but now I will forever remember those atolls as a sign of untouched beauty. The day did not end there...in the evening it was time for the hottest weekly party on Tuvalu... Don't imagine fireworks guys. This party is held by the hotel and includes a 'festive' buffet dinner plus a 'show' by none other than the members of staff - including our waitress with the adaptation to Tuvalu problems. The show was the most ludicrous thing I have ever witnessed (and I have seen enough Z-grade Greek starlets with big tits in my time). The 'staff' paraded in a number of colourful outfits, which made them occasionally seem like barrels clothed in straw, or like rejects from a high school beauty contest. The tunes that were being played by a CD which often got stuck were then danced to, occasionally by 2 or 3 of the staff in unison but without any syncronisation really. The height of the fun was when the girls were joined by a fat bald guy with one lock of hair in the middle of his scalp who wore a wreath on his head and a straw dress and appeared to be doing a Genghis Khan parody without knowing it. The final act was all 6 members of staff dancing to 'Greased Lightning' in a manner John Travolta would have never imagined, after which all of us 12 partakers of the buffet dinner were invited to the open air dance floor to dance to tunes such as 'Agadoo' which I last remember dancing to at the party of Aneli from the 4th floor in 1984. The scene was rendered romantic by turning the lights off as the moon appeared - almost full - behind the palm trees and lit the sea next to us, and the makeshift dance-floor. I looked at the clear sky and the shining stars. There are few moments in life that remained eternal. The 'Agadoo' dancing troupe certainly will.

 

This morning was my last memory of Tuvalu, probably for this lifetime although you never really know, do you? Curiously it seemed like 3 days there were not enough. I wanted more of doing nothing, of just reading my Serbian books about Belgrade as far away from Belgrade as possible. Today was also present day. The lady who owned the little cafe next to the airport where I would go to lunch (all 3 days) appeared with a necklace made of shells for me and wishing me sincere goodbyes. The hotel also gave me the same present. And Cho, my companion, also gave me one of the remaining gifts (used to help the locals talk more about their island) which is apparently a clock.

 

Airplane day is the centre of action in Tuvalu, both times a week. Before the airplane lands and departs, the local fire engine goes around the runaway with its sirens on, to warn the locals to not drive onto the runaway, but more importantly, to get the dogs off the runaway as well. It seems the dogs immediately recognise the siren sounds and walk back toward the small terminal building, which comes to life when the plane finally approaches. We were only 27 passengers on the 50-seat Convair back, and I was the only Caucasian, joined by Cho and a couple of Japanese as foreigners (the mysterious Americans stayed on the island). As the airplane taxis on the runaway ready for lift-off, everyone on the road by the runaway is standing and waving, whether children, fat Polynesian ladies, or young guys who are preparing for the next football match once the runaway is usable again. Waving away they are, and you smile, and somewhere inside you your faith in human kind is restored. I have been through so much negativity in the past months that I needed Tuvalu to raise the spirit. And that it can't fail to do, for the purity in the people's eyes, no matter what the age, is something unmatchable, certainly in Suva, but also in all the horrid Suvas of today's world. Luckily Tuvalu is far away from it all, so the people's eyes can go on shining, and their sincere smiles and waves continue for as long as the waters around the place will allow.

Diary: North Pacific Islands

Trip taken in December 2006.

 

Tue Dec 12. Lift off from Athens. Via Rome (ever lovely, lovely, lovely, a city made for lovers). Via Dubai (airport chaotic and a multinational mix never before encountered) to finally:

 

Wed Dec 13. It is always nice to land in an airport that is familiar to you. Seoul Incheon airport is almost 70 kms out of town, but I have been here before and know what to do, and will go to Yim's Guest House, where I stayed last year at the same time, ever so sweet little guesthouse in the Jongno area of Seoul. A town which really is not recommended, as it has few sights and not much character. It is freezing cold and this is the only country I will need my coat or my long sleeved jumpers for.

 

Thu Dec 14   Spent day freezing in the streets of Seoul. Early afternoon at the airport. Flying business class for the next 6 flights as it was only 200 euro more and worth the investment. Asiana's business class lounge is rather good and I can eat for free here...so here is the paradox: eat for free in a lounge but spend fortunes for the air ticket. Doesn't make much sense, does it? At any rate, the conquests can now begin...8 Pacific destinations, of which 6 are independent, in the next 7 days. I will be on planes and airports more than anything else, but then again when you are visiting atolls, it is not as if there is a lot more you can do other than swim or observe the sea...

 

Fri Dec 15  Land in Saipan at 1 am in the dead of night, the plane full of Koreans (I am the only Caucasian on board). Go to the hotel and immediately sense that this is a resort feeling. Saipan is one of the islands that make up the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianna Islands, which are US territory, but have their own flag and their own entry requirements. The day dawns and one look at the sea and it's obvious why this place is popular. The endless light blue is soothing to the eye...but how come there is nobody swimming? Nobody apart from a Greek chap called Harry who hopes there are no crabs, sharks or toxic waste in the empty waters which are ever so appealing. Splash about in december...and hope that next time there is someone to splash about with! The sighs in Saipan are limited to a US memorial...and then I make for the Hard Rock Cafe for lunch. This is where all the Japanese tourists are! At the mall doing shopping. Why would you want to think they are in the water?

 

Flying to Palau via Guam at 3 pm.  The security check at the airport is an ordeal. The first thing you see is a huge poster stating that the terrorist threat is high. Of course I checked in my suitcase or else my toothpaste or shaving foam wouldnt stand a chance. But even my camera and my mobile are scrutinised, and I am given a massage-like body check by the pan-faced controllers. Welcome to the US, land of paranoia.

 

In Guam must pass immigration even though I am flying to another country. Just as well I am on my UK passport, my Greek one wouldnt stand a chance here. More insane security checks. Continental biz class lounge doesnt have internet access...And I need internet access...Grrrrr.

 

Palau. I have been wanting to come here more than any other of the places I am visiting. Perhaps the mystique is that it was the world's youngest independent country from 1994 to 2002 (when East Timor took over, recently overtaken by Montenegro) and that it is really unknown. Or so I thought. Loads of Taiwanese and Japanese come here in droves as it is nearish and cheapish.

I am wrecked from the jetlag. But I cant sleep. Sleep is, in fact, something I cannot do for the whole of this trip. Too high on the adrenalin. When will this sweet torture end?

 

Dec 16  Bummer. It is raining nonstop. At one point I decide to sod it and end up walking about 7 kms in the rain, that is also an elevating transcedental experience. The capital, Koror, is larger than i expected though don't get images of New York here. The sea is rough and unappealing in such weather. But somehow a ray of sun makes it through before sunset and I get a beautiful picture of what can only be thought as idyllic. Palau is probably not a bad place for divers, but I still vote for the Greek sea hands down.

 

Dec 17  1 am night flight to Guam via Yap which is one of the four islands of the Federated States of Micronesia (an independent country). Land in Guam, and this is 100% USA - once you pass here you can fly without passport control to LA. It is 5 am, still night, and I have the whole day here until my evening flight out. What to do? Rent a car despite my exhaustion, as I said, sleep is not high on the priority list...where to go? And how? The initial surprise of an automatic car without gears (I last drove one back on US soil on March 21, 1998...dont say I dont remember my dates...that is one I cannot forget) is certainly an awakening. But soon I get the hang of it and off I go to explore the southern part of the island which my guidebook recommends. Magellan landed at a beach here and there is a monument, plus what is called a Spanish bridge, built in Spanish style, after all until 1898 it was those who ruled here until the US threw them out. It is windy and the merciless ocean crashes on the shores as I make the whole loop, the sun comes out, a new day is here, in fact Guam is the first place that US sees a new day in...

I am too tired to go on, my body is shaking from exhaustion and I must have a coffee...McDonalds right ahead. Ok, give in. Sunday morning at 8.30 and the McDonalds is packed. This is where Guamians (who look a little like Philipinos, but still somehow different) come for a choice Sunday breakfast? Man, I am here cause I need a coffee...though I also opt for the Portuguese sausage...anything European for me here please! And my accent has turned unmistakeably British here in defiance.

The centre of the capital Agana is tiny, but features Plaza de Espana (Spain Square) plus a church or two plus on the hill a fortress with some cannons, which make a nice photo shoot. A Japanese man (they are everywhere) helps me get a rare shot of myself...

Man I need to sleep...I cant just drive till 5 pm...what to do? Cinema sleep. Malls here abound, this is the US remember. So for $4 you get the matinee special. I plan to sleep for 2 hours in the cinema and then go on. Bad plan, the film is too good. Cameron Diaz and Kate Winslet are two unhappy 30somethings and they change places - the first from LA to Surrey and the other from Surrey to LA taking each other's houses. Needless to say, they find love and happiness. Only in Hollywood but hey, I am crying my heart out at the happy ending. Hopeless case this Harry.

Well at least I am awake. Off to 'Two lovers point' which offers a lovely view off the cliff. the legend is that two Chamorros (this is the name of the local population) fell in love but the father of the girl insisted she marries a wealthy Spanish governor. The two elope and, with a posse following them, decide to jump from this rock and die together. I am in tears again...oh Lord, this is not usually like me...shopping therapy to the rescue at Micronesia mall...when you enter a huge atrium with world flags, including Greece, geez so far away from home, but here is your flag...

Surprisingly I have survived 12 hours driving in Guam with no previous sleep without a car crash. Miracles do happen.

 

Flight to Pohnpei (capital of the Federal States of Micronesia).

 

Dec 18

 

1 am landing in Pohnpei. No reservations or anything of the sort but I find a guy at the airport to take me to hotel 'the cliff'. I am a complete ruin...must look like I am 100 years old...

 

Wake up at 8 to walk around. There is nothing to see. The town called Kolonia is like a tiny village. Am lucky enough to catch schoolchildren in their nice green uniforms, just as they are going to school. Some nice pics of the locals. The town has nothing and I mean nothing other than the remains of a German church (the Germans ruled here from 1989 to 1914 odd no?) and some lousy remains of a Spanish wall.

I wonder if any of the locals realise that the name of their country is Greek - Micronesia meaning little islands, though I should add 'too little'. So little there is nothing to do unless you really love sitting by the beach all your life.

Taxi driver is asked by this maniac Harry to take a diversion before going to the airport and drive inland for 6 kms to see Palikir - the capital of Micronesia. The road is very tropical, full of lush vegetation and lovely trees. The 'capital' is just a few oversized huts which are ministeries. This must be the only country where one can take a picture of the president's residence unhindered.

The nicest thing about Pohnpei is the airport crowd. The terminal is largely open air and it seems to attract people of all ages and sizes (literally, including some fat Micronesia mammas) all there to socialise and find an excuse of someone's trip (here this is a huge event). Very colourful dresses and atmosphere.

 

Flight to Majuro in Marshall Islands is part of Continental's Island Hopper route which starts in Guam, then does Chuuk, Pohnpei and Kosrae in Micronesia, then Kwajalein and Majuro in Marshall islands and then takes in the last 4.5 hour leg up to Honolulu. The whole flight takes 14 hours and if I am not mistaken has the most stopovers in the world for a scheduled service. Poor flight attendants. Courtesy of the hopper I land in Kosrae and have thus seen all 4 airports of Micronesia (Yap, Chuuk, Pohnpei, Kosrae).

 

Kwajalein is an American base from where they arranged nuclear experiments in the 60s in nearby Bikini island. Shocking. We are warned that photography is not permitted. Foreigners and people with no permits cannot get off here. And then I am on to Majuro in Marshall Isles, perhaps the most obscure and distant country I could have found (though tomorrow goes a step further).  Marshall Islands will join St. Vincent & Grenadines (in the Caribbean) as two countries I have been on entirely in the dark. By the time we land at 7 pm it is night. Majuro is just an atoll, the land is covered by sea at both (and all) ends. On occasion the strip of land is so small (i.e. 100 meters only) that it is only the road and sea on both sides. At its greatest width land cannot be more than 500 meters. That is all! With a main road and buildings on both sides. Having said that, it is 20 kms to the hotel, which is not cheap at all at $85 but really is quite good called Robert Reimer enterprises. Yes the Germans were once the rulers here and obviously someone stayed, or maybe returned to find their roots. Plus I have to say that considering you are on a slither of land, Majuro as an island seems quite urbanised, many buildings are around and the bank and post office and rather 'jazzy' for where you are. And there is even a bowling alley. I go for a walk to take some pictures in the dark but can only find an abandoned basket ball court (picture for my father here) and a palm tree with Xmas lights, which makes for an interesting change.

 

Dec 19

 

Couldnt sleep at all. Woke up at midnight and tried to relax but couldnt. Watched some TV. Yes CNN and BBC World from the Marshall Islands. Got a phonecard from reception and made some calls. Even here you know you are still on the globe.

 

6 am taxi to airport as it dawns and I get a better impression of the place. Certainly it deserves no more time, palm trees on the ocean bed is all that there is to see, which may be idyllic for some but not my idea of a holiday. Take a picture of them at the airport when this queen comes over (and I mean bigtime) and says 'Oh honey take a picture of me pleeeease, I gotta have one before I leave this place man' with a feminised voice. A Nauruan gay queen is hardly what I expect to find at Majuro's tiny air terminal right in front of me. These things seem to happen only to me. It is slightly too early in the morning (or is it night...dont know where I am any more) for this...

Air Nauru went bankrupt and has always had troubles, but they restarted with the new name 'Our Airline' (quite quirky really) just two months ago and have the route from Majuro to Tarawa (Kiribati) then through their base on Nauru to Honiara (Solomon Isl) and finally Brisbane in Australia. The latter part of the route pains me, as it includes Nauru and Solomons I will still not have been to after this trip. I am just taking the one hour flight to Tarawa, but by leaving the Marshalls I am also leaving the US$ and any US influence behind me and sharing on a flight with countless Nauruans whose business on Majuro is unclear to me.

 

Landing in Tarawa offers the most beautiful sight. It is one thing seeing pictures and another being there live. This is the image of the pacific islands you imagine, tiny little dots on the ocean surrounded by azure, emerald waters. This is pure beauty and I wonder how the pictures will turn out...I have never seen anything so amazingly calming before, it took me 139 countries to get here, but this is really it. From above at least. The ground will be different.

 

Tarawa is also an atoll, much like Majuro only longer and slightly broader (slightly) and is the capital of the little known Republic of Kiribati which was the first country to see the millenium because they changed the dateline to suit the country's border. The country is huge in terms of water, from east to west it is longer than NYC to LA, but in land mass it is tiny.

There is no taxi here which is better. A brief glimpse of the old Harry who used to be a real explorer and dare-devil (lately dying out though). There is a police station at the airport and the officers are ever so friendly and accept to store my bags right there while I roam around the place. Incidentally once again I am lucky I am on my UK passport. Others need visas which you must get in advance! Unless you are from some commonwealth countries, and that includes Cyprus...but how may Cypriots have ever been to Kiribati?

This country has a good bus system (where bus = Hyundai minivans). They come by every 2 minutes. So I hop on with the locals, and this is a country where there are no tourists...I mean none. No infrastructure. Just straw huts where children are running naked and seem ever so happy, makeshift washing lines...neat. There is almost no capital to speak of, but the biggest settlement is Bairiki, about an hour's drive on the atoll from the airport, a drive on a bumpy road with a few noteworthy churches (including Mormons and Jehovah's witnesses...and the only Caucasians around seem to be advocates of these happily converting unfortunate locals), with the ocean on the left side, and the azure blue of the lagoon on the right.

Tarawa gives me a break with wonderful weather, and I spend my 7 hours in the country going on and off the minibus whenever I see something photo-worthy, which includes the newly built 'parliament' (also looks like a hut) and some very pretty shots of the lagoon. I almost had a great shot of a boy aged about 10, wheeling a naked 2-year old in a wheelbarrow...it would have been such a good one, and the camera was all poised when the 2-year old, probably terrified of this monster aiming at him, burst out in tears, and so I just laughed and let the poor soul be...what is his future one wonders...Best shot actually taken is one where three dogs are lazing in the sand, and there is a boat on the blue lagoon beyond: it's truly a dog's life...

Just as well I didnt need to find a place to eat here. Dont know where I would. There seems to be nothing like a real restaurant, apart from some Chinese venues...even here there are Chinese. The 'best' hotel looks like an army barracks. Clearly they dont expect many Japanese here despite the shipwrecks and other ruins from WW2 which are, for some, a tourist attraction.

 

4 pm. Flight to civilisation. I was worried about this one. The whole complicated itinerary was built around the connection on Tarawa, only possible on a Tuesday which is the only day two international flights land here. Air Pacific will take me to Nadi in Fiji, and once there, I am on terra firma. Before boarding I get chatting to an American girl who has been working on a project with the local ministery of agriculture on the impact of fishing on the economy. Two months nonstop on Kiribati? Man 7 hours was lovely, but truly more than enough. Plus, she assures me, Tarawa is the pinnacle of civlisation, compared to some of the outer atolls. Amazing where people live. No I am not a true anthropologist adventurer. I guess am too grounded in modern life after all, but they I knew this all along.

 

In 3 hours and a really good flight by Air Pacific (economy class much better than Continental's business) and landing in Fiji, where there has just been a coup. The flight from Tarawa only has 30 people on, but Nadi airport is bustling with a jumbo jet which has just landed from Australia. I am not going to like this one bit. Prefer the children in the wheelbarrow. Spend the night at a backpacker place with spotty 20year-old Australians (among other musclemen Australians or trying to be cool family Australians), but I do have my own room. I pray, truly pray, for some sleep. I havent had a decent night sleep through this trip yet, and I cant go on. My angel listens - 8 hours out.

 

Dec 20  It is going to be the longest day of my life. Will live the same day twice, as tonight I am crossing the dateline to Samoa, and will land again on Dec 20. 48 hours rather than 24...I have a few options today. Either spend the whole day by the pool doing nothing...or what? I dont have a guidebook and renting a car is out of the question as they drive on the wrong side of the road here (given that I have my UK driving licence with me, I shouldnt be claiming this...but I have never driven in the UK and never would). So I have to take the cop-out way and take a half-day tour to at least see something.

First stop: Garden of the Sleeping Giant, this is just such a nice name! The actor Raymond Burr who acted Perry Mason in the 1950s opened a huge garden with orchids and other tropical plants in the 1970s (this is an odd piece of trivia). So we go around this lovely tropical sanctuary in what is terrible humidity).

From there onto Fiji's second largest town called Lautaku (or something like that). Man this place is odd. Nearly everyone around is Indian. Apparently 45% of the population on Fiji are Indian, so if you want to do two countries in one, bizarre Fiji is your choice. The nation whose passport I am carrying is responsible for this mess, and all ensuing coups are because of endless tension between the real locals i.e. the Oceanians and the Indians, and the population is almost 50-50%. The markets and the streets all have Indian produce, but then plenty of tropical fruits. Very messy really and not appealing in the slightest.

Nadi, the main town by the airport, is nondescript, though the Indian temple I was taken to must be the most colourful religious temple I have ever seen: never have pink and orange been put to better religious use plus anthropomorphic elephants and oxen to complement the picture. Sadly photos are not permitted in such a sacred environment...or they would have made great posters, honest.

 

Final evaluation:  Fiji - sucks.  Palau - disappointment. Micronesia - not really. Guam: surprisingly pleasant. Marshall Islands : not bad for a day in the middle of nowhere. Kiribati: adorably underdeveloped (just dont stay too long) plus most beautiful landing I have ever had and finally, my favourite despite the Japanese invasion of tourists: Saipan. Who would have thought?

 

And this is where I am guys. In Nadi. Fiji. Will go to lunch at Nandos (Michael and Vivien know that I have to now that I know there is a Nandos here!) and tonight (actually, this morning that has already passed here!) I am conquering my 141st country, Samoa, and that is that, through New Zealand for a day and back home in time for Christmas lunch if all goes well (but hey I am flying out again after Xmas dinner...so don't accuse me of staying static!)

 

This trip was very difficult logistically, as you realise cost a fortune, but it seems I have made it more or less and seen some of the things there were to see (sea and palms being the main attraction). Don't raise your hopes though. Harrytravels has become harrytires, and at this point the idea of conquering the remaining 53 countries is truly very far away. Other things are more important, don't you think?

 

? to complete the travelogue, but I will start backwards this time! In 4 hours I will be flying out of Auckland on what is my longest direct flight (20 hours to Dubai total) and it will be more than 31 hours until I reach Athens, by which time I will probably be in a state of complete collapse.

 

For those who think that Auckland is primarily a Caucasian town, think again. There must be more Koreans here than there are in Seoul, plus every other race on the planet. Having said that, immigration here makes the US seem like a bunch of boyscouts. Never before have I received such a shakedown, 4 consecutive times until reaching the exit and was asked everything apart from the colour of my underwear...I guess not having shaved for 3 times and having stamps from places like Colombia and East Timor didnt really help my case. Just as well they didnt see my Greek passport which sports a stamp from almost every Middle Eastern nation there is (including Iraq). All of this, plus rain and 12 degrees in Auckland will certainly dethrone NZ from its current second position in my country rankings, but having said that there is a pleasant Christmasy atmosphere here and some good last minute shopping.

 

In fact never before have I shopped so much on a trip, though apart from jeans and a new pair of sneakers bought in Guam, the rest are mainly presents for friends, including what must be a bagfull of magnets...

 

Two injustices must be rectified now...First of all, it is the last of the Pacific islands I visited, the nation of Samoa, that certainly gets the crown of favourite Pacific island so far (and given that the competition of those not visited is small, perhaps only Vanatu or French Polynesia stand a chance). Though I was tired and neither went to waterfalls nor to Robert Louis Stevenson's house, there was something about the friendly, unassuming people (plus they are a really good-looking race apart from the truly overweight, sumo-style ones), about the beautiful vegetation, about the colourful churches at every corner and about the just good enough level of infrastructure which still gives a civilised demeanour to make this one to visit again for sure. Uncharacteristically, I spent most of my time splashing about in the pool of Aggie Grey hotel which is a bit of an institution on the island and really pleasant. My tan is complete but will have faded by the time I get home.

 

However, when all is said and done, the first was the best. I still cannot get over the romance and beauty of Rome on a bright winter day, with enough but not too much bustle, an open museum atmosphere, and elegance all around. And this is said despite my well known distaste for the Italians as a nation. So I guess in the end what is closer to home wins out...

Visa information and help

Strategies for visas

Here is some visa advice acquired from my roaming around the world. Of course the requirements change so I can't be sure if they are still valid. I will mention all countries I needed a visa for and tell you how I managed to get it, and here are the countries in alphabetical order.

Afghanistan
This was rather straight-forward in the autumn of 2003 when I tried it. I simply sent my (Greek) passport to the UK along with a letter from my employer and a cheque and that was that. Got a stamp which didn't look very impressive at all, but secured me entry into what was a warzone (and now is even worse).

Algeria
Oh boy. Given they have had enough terrorist attacks in the past decades to sink multiple Titanics, I can understand their paranoia. Officials tend to be suspicious and unfriendly. They turned me back twice at the embassy in Athens until I finally opted for a transit visa with a bizarre connection to Nouakchott, Mauritania, leaving me one full day (but no nights) in Algiers. They ended up giving me a 7-day transit visa in the end, which would have been enough for me to go round the country if I so desired (but I didn't).

Angola
A nightmare! This is considered one of the hardest visas to get, and with good reason. They need an invitation in the country or a hotel reservation. This second factor seems rather straight-forward but believe me, it isn't when there are no major hotel chains and nobody answers your emails. In the end, the expensive Hotel Alvalade was the only one to answer my fax. They must also send a fax directly to the embassy and only after that can you apply for a visa, with supporting evidence including either proof of $100 a day or cheques for that amount, your flight tickets and a photocopy plus proof of payment for the visa at the bank (not at the embassy). This is all nerve-racking. Good luck. Angolan charm does somewhat make it worthwhile in the end. When you arrive at the airport, they will ask you for a company name even if you are on a tourist visa. Make something up. I gave them the name of the former college where I used to work 'Alpine Centre', which they duly filled in and off I went.

Armenia
Pretty straight-forward although it took a few days. I didn't need any form of invitation or reservation if I remember well. They probably like Greeks there.

Azerbaijan
I got this one at the airport in Baku upon arrival with no hassle at all. Just forked out the money and got it.

Bangladesh
I was lucky here. There is a regulation that if there is no representation in your home country, you can get the visa at Dhaka airport. There IS representation in Greece but they are not authorised to issue visas. I got a 15-day entry at Dhaka with little hassle (other than the dreadful airport which is an introduction to what is to follow!).

Belarus
Typical Soviet-style bureaucracy here. The simplest way to go round it is to contact the Belarus Tourism Board (which can't be very busy) and they will send you an invitation for a fee (you can pay by credit card). As there was no Belarus embassy in Greece, I paid to be taken to my hotel and if the tourist board people wait for you, then your visa can be issued at Minsk airport. Otherwise, good luck at finding an embassy near you!

Benin
You can get a 48-hour transit on the border with Togo. Since I wanted to fly from Burkina Faso where there was no embassy, I had to plan ahead and managed to get it in Niger, Niamey (same day service and friendly officials too). No hassle at all, the only problem is that Benin doesn't have many embassies around so you will need to plan ahead.

Bhutan
Impossible to go it alone unless you visit a small border town with India where no visa is needed and can thereby claim you have been to the country. For a 'real' tour, however, find one of the many Bhutan operators. Tours are not cheap but once you book it, all shall be arranged, they will send you a scanned letter by mail and with that you can receive your visa at Paro airport with no hassle.

Burkina Faso
One of the easiest African visas. I lucked out, as the French embassy in Athens is authorised to issue visas for this country. I went and after half an hour I was 60 euros poorer and a visa richer.

Burundi
If there is no embassy in your country, you can get one at the airport in Bujumbura. If you are staying less than 72 hours get a transit visa for $20 which is only a stamp and a piece of loose paper. Otherwise you get a 'real' visa and it costs $40. The only problem is that you need to make sure the airline you fly with will let you onboard without a visa. This was no problem for me in Kigali or in Cairo, from where I took flights to Bujumbura on two occasions.

Cameroon
In Europe apparently this is a rather troublesome visa, but on the road in Africa it is rather easy. I got it in Libreville, Gabon with same-day service (though I think usually it takes 24 hrs). I paid quite dearly for a 3-month multi-entry (100 euros) but there was little hassle other than some waiting.

Cape Verde
If there is no representation in your country, you can get the visa on arrival at the airport with little hassle. I had a bizarre experience on the way out of the country while waiting to check-in. Was called by the airport police authorities into a little office and interrogated as to my purpose of travel etc etc. As this has never happened to me anywhere else, I thought it strange in a place so open to tourism...

Central African Republic
This is supposed to be quite a problem, especially since the country is politically unstable. However, in Greece the French embassy handles the visas and presumably I was the only mad person ever to request one. They did ask for a return flight as a voucher that I won't resettle in Bangui (right!) but I got the visa the same day with no hassle, and with just a bit of an inquisitive look by the (Greek) employee there.

Chad
There is an honorary consul in Greece strangely enough, a Greek guy who is more than willing to exchange a story or two about his great friendship with Chadian colonel Manga, who entrusted him with the representation of his country in little Greece. Visa issued on the spot for 52 euros.

China
I think the Chinese visa has become a technicality no matter where you are. You must wait 3 days unless you want to pay double (or more) for 24-hour service but the whole thing is painless.

Comoros
Transit visa issued on arrival in Moroni at the airport and won't break your budget. I wouldn't linger in the Comoros anyway if I were you, so a transit visa is all your will need.

DR Congo
This one can be tricky if you want to fly in. If you are daring enough to cross a land border, you can get it on the spot like I did in Goma for $30. You may be hassled depending on whether the ominous guy wearing sunglasses likes you or not. I had no troubles and was given an 8-day visa. Specify the places you want to visit on entry. I only stayed an hour, but maybe will be more adventurous in the future...

Congo
One of the less troublesome visas. This is actually the only visa I got which i didn't use (and then had to issue again). First time round I got it in Libreville, Gabon, paying a hefty $100 for same-day service (it's half for 24 hours wait). You will be 'interviewed' by the consul or something, but also have the pleasure of sassy ladies in local clothing chatting you up. Second time round I got the visa on the spot in Bamako, Mali but again paid a fortune for it. This time I requested multiple entry for good measure and got it.

Cote d'Ivoire
This seems to be problematic for many people but in Greece you pay 50 euros and get it on the spot. The second time I went the lady actually made a mistake and wrote 3 visits instead of one (confusing it with 3 month visa validity).

Cuba
If you go with a package, as most people do, your visa will be a voucher-like piece of paper which will be given to you by the tour operator. No hassle at all.

Djibouti
The visa is issued on arrival, and a transit costs $20. Do take note that you can't get a multi though, and that the visa 'eats up' a whole page, which was problematic for me as I went from here to Somaliland and back and found myself with less pages than I would have liked. There may be some queuing at the airport as they are rather disorganised so have a good book with you while you wait.

East Timor
No hassles here, you get the visa on arrival at Dili airport for $30 if I remember well. There are few flights and no queues, so you will be quickly outside to enjoy a lazy little place (unless there are violent riots!).

Egypt
Visa is required by everyone and obtainable on arrival. Just be cautious when you change money, cause they have a way of swindling you if you change more than the visa fee. Best thing is to give the visa fee in $ ($15 I think) and then change money separately. General disorganisation means huge queues at immigration, which can be tiring especially if you arrive in the middle of the night.

Equatorial Guinea
This is the hardest visa to get. Trust me, I know, it's no wonder I left this country last. I don't know how people get a tourist visa nowadays. You need an invitation from someone in the country, essentially that means a business contact. Once you have that, things are straight-forward. You send your business contact a scanned copy of your passport and they will also probably require a copy of your penal record (i.e. that you are not a fellon!). Then you get a scanned certificate and with that you can travel to the country i.e. you don't really get a visa in your passport. Without a contact in the country, however, it seems impossible to get this visa, they are paranoid since a coup attempt a few years back and very suspicious of foreigners...

Eritrea
This is a weird visa to get. I tried my luck in Cairo, where they asked for a letter from my embassy, which meant wasting time waiting at the (surprisingly helpful and polite) Greek embassy before returning twice (i.e. a total of three times!) to the Eritrea consulate, once to submit the passport and then again the following day to get the visa. Maybe they are less suspicious of more 'usual' western passports.

Ethiopia
I went to the embassy in Athens and got a 3-month multiple visa with very little wait. Otherwise, Western nationals can get a one-entry visa on arrival at the airport, though there might be quite a wait involved. Don't miss Ethiopia, a real gem of a place.

Gabon
Considered one of the most difficult visas to get, I was lucky in that there is representation in Athens and all you need is a letter of intent and you get the visa on the spot by an elderly Greek lady who is the honourary consul. If you are not Greek though, you may have a harder time with this visa.

Gambia
My Gambia experience is the only one where I needed a visa but they let me in the country without one! Note that Commonwealth citizens, Scandinavians and Germans don't need a visa! At any rate, I entered by road from Senegal (which is painful once you continue in Gambia on one of the worst roads in history!) and the people there had never heard of Greece and Greece was not on the list of 'exempt' countries! Well, I told the guy 'you haven't heard of my country? We are the European football champions!'. Upon which I got a 7-day entry stamp without paying. I was worried they would check upon exiting the country, but nobody seems to care a damn... Awful place by the way, to be avoided.

Georgia
When I visited in 2002, a visa was required and I received it at the embassy in Athens with no hassles or wait. Since then, they have abolished the requirement for westerners, making the whole thing much easier.

Ghana
Apparently, the Ghana visa is now available at Accra airport if you have been lazy, but it costs $100! I suggest you get it at home. I managed to find the consul in Greece, whose office is within a large shipping company. They need 4 photographs which is a record (don't ask me what for) and the process also takes a couple of days. Note that border officials are extremely unfriendly, as are most Ghanaians I met while there.

Guinea
Depending on where you get it, it can be easy or troublesome. I think the best place to fetch this one if you are in Africa is Freetown, Sierra Leone. Extremely friendly people make you feel honoured and the consul himself is pleasant and chatty and will have your visa ready in no time for a 3-month stay. One of my most pleasant visa experiences.

Guinea-Bissau
You can get this at the airport on arrival though this is not widely known. This is also your best bet if flying by air as there are very few embassies about. I was unfortunate enough to have the (unusual) experience of a 14-hour delay on Air Senegal, which meant I arrived at 1.30 am with no officials there. A woman took my passport and I was let into the country but requested to return to the airport the following morning. It's rather unsettling to know a woman just puts your precious document in her pocket and goes home with it, but it all turned out ok.

India
All citizens need a visa for India but it is rather easy to get and you will probably receive a multi-entry, 6-month visa with little problems.

Iran
Well...if you are Greek, going to Iran is a breeze. This is the only country where when I went for the visa, they also gave me brochures and travel information at the consulate. Talk about being made welcome! I was lucky in that the consul was available on hand and issued the visa for me in 10 minutes. This will probably not be the case with you if you have a more 'western' passport. In Esfahan I had met a guy from England who had had to go via an agency in order to get an invitation. This was all back in 2002 so I don't know how things have changed since.

Iraq
I am not insane and would not touch Iraq proper. I have only been to the Kurdish part (Erbil) and that by plane. The visa (little more than a stamp) is issued on arrival for free, or at least that was the case in August 2006. Check on this, as things seem to change all the time in this troubled land.

Jordan
Visa issued at border points for 10JD with minimal hassle. Just note that the visa and the stamps take up a whole page which is a problem if you plan multiple entries and have to get a new visa every time, eating up your precious little passport.

Kazakhstan
As with most of these CIS republics, you need an invitation from the country sent to the embassy where you plan on issuing the visa. Having that, little problems involved; the consulate in Athens is not the busiest place and I got my visa in a day with pleasant chit-chat with the (Russian-born) consul.

Kenya
Visa issued on arrival in Nairobi. While everywhere I read it would be $50, I actually paid $20.

Kiribati
Do not that most nationals DO need a visa for this island nation. However British nationals are among the few who don't though you might have to convince the people at the airport of departure to check this. (I flew in from Marshall Islands when there was still a flight). If you do need a visa, I can't help you...

North Korea
Here we get to the difficult bit. Or actually it is not so difficult! You just need LOTS of money and a travel agent. Try Koryogroup based in Beijing, or wikipedia gives a list of other agencies. You will need a letter from your employer and proof you are not a journalist, but otherwise this is easy yet expensive! Do note: North Korea is an absolute MUST! Go while you can!

Kuwait
Visa issued on arrival at the airport for Western Nationals but note there can be quite a queue. Fees are lower for British and Italians for some reason. The visa is actually a rather large piece of paper which you must save and hand over upon departure; all you get in your passport is a small stamp (good for saving passport space).

Kyrgyzstan
Apparently this is the easiest of the -stans to get a visa for and now you can do it in Bishkek. Back in good old 2001, I sent my passport to London along with a cheque and an invitation from an agency and got the 'goods' in the post a week or so later.

Laos
Visa issued on arrival in Vientiane. No problems at all.

Liberia
You must have a visa before travelling to Liberia. It is not a hard one to get. In Athens (or rather Pireus), there is a consulate mainly dealing with shipping issues, but they will also get your visa done in 24 hours. They seemed really quizzed when I entered there wanting a visa for this hardly touristy country, but all I needed apart from the usual was a letter of 'intent' and that was all. The visa is only valid for 30 days if issued in Athens, but elsewhere surely you can get a 3-month one (not that you would want to be there for so long unless you have to!).

Libya
I heard that this is now harder rather than easier and you MUST have your passport translated in Arabic (check this). When I went in early 2007, they had simplified to the extent that I never needed to go to an embassy! I contacted mideast tours in Athens and they got me the invitation, with which I travelled to Tripoli and got all necessary stamps on arrival. I was on a flight from Lagos on Afriqiyah Air, the only Caucasian and also the only passenger getting off in Tripoli, thus disturbing the slumber of the officials at 6 a.m.

Madagascar
Visa issued on arrival at Antanarivo with lots of colourful stamps pasted on your passport in the process. No problems!

Malawi
A strange list of countries does or does not need a visa for Malawi. I made it here with my UK passport and don't need one as such. Do check though to avoid surprises.

Mali
I hear you can get this at the airport, and this is probably the case as the officials of Air France in Paris did not check to see if I have a visa or not. I actually got it in Athens though, which was an unnecessary expense as my passport had to be sent to Rome, and of course I paid the courrier costs. Oh well. you live, you learn!

Mauritania
First, be sure you want to go there! Truly, there is just sand... anyway, French embassy in Athens authorised for this country in my case, so no problems, I got it on the spot.

Moldova
Back in 2000, you needed a visa for Moldova! I got mine at the airport in Chisinau, where, for the record, I also saw the most beautiful girl I have ever seen! Anyway, they have since done away with visas for EU nationals.

Mongolia
You can get this at the airport in Ulan-Bator but I don't think this is the case for overland entry. In Athens there is an honorary consul (a Greek married to a Mongolian lady it appears) in the area of Marousi, and they will get the visa done for you in 2-3 days but you must make a phone appointment before and I will be damned if I remember the address or the phone number of the place.

Mozambique
Visa issued at the border with no problems at all. Lovely place.

Myanmar
Best to contact a tour operator in Myanmar like I did. They arranged the documents and sent me a scanned letter so I could board the plane and receive the visa upon arrival at the airport, though at the time (2002) it seemed I was the great exception, and everyone else had their visa stickers neatly in place. They checked me very thoroughly in Thailand, scrutinising the invitation letter, before letting me on the plane.

Nauru
Well, if you really want to make it to Nauru, you will need a visa. The best way is to contact the embassy in Australia and they will send you a form. You will need to provide accommodation details (i.e. book at one of the two hotels in Nauru), flight reservations and also a letter stating you will not undertake employment on Nauru. The letter is then sent to you, and you obtain the visa by paying $100 on arrival. You will even meet the visa officer in person, a very friendly chap indeed.

Nepal
Courtesy of the honourary consul in Athens, a Greek gentleman living in a flat in the upscale area of Kolonaki which looks like it is out of the 60s it is so filled in memorabilia, the visa is obtained with little hassles in no time. If your stay is short (under 72 hours) apparently you don't need a visa in the first place.

Niger
A tricky one, not because it is hard to get, but because there are few Niger embassies around. A good one is Bamako, Mali, where a friendly lady will be most welcoming and cheerful and get your visa done in less than 10 minutes assuming there is no queue, which there probably won't be.

Nigeria
This is justly regarded as one of the 5 hardest visas to get in Africa. You will generally need an invitation from someone in Nigeria. If you want to get around that, ask for a transit visa. I did that by claiming I want to go to Benin (for which there is a visa available at the border, which means I don't need it in advance). I provided tickets and accommodation details and got a 48-hour transit visa in Athens. Upon arrival in Nigeria, however, I was stamped for an entry of 7 days, which theoretically means I could have stayed longer. Advice: book a hotel and a flight, get a transit visa, then cancel your reservations and play it by ear. Playing it by ear is probably a good strategy in Nigeria in the first place!

Oman
Visa available on arrival, though there may be some miscommunication since many officials speak surprisingly little English, plus inevitable queuing...

Pakistan
Given the turmoil in the country, this one may be a bit demanding. In Athens they requested accommodation confirmation for all the places I was going to plus a letter from my employer. There can't be many independent tourists going from Greece to Pakistan. At any rate, I had to go to the consulate three times, and lots of waiting time while they serve their own people who look at you in disbelief as if to say: are you sure you want to go to Pakistan?

Papua New Guinea
Surprisingly efficient system results in a 30-day visa being issued within a minute of your presenting your papers at the immigration desk and the appropriate sticker being placed in your passport. No hassle at all.

Qatar
To be honest, I am not quite sure of the regulations here. You can certainly get the visa on arrival, it may just be a while waiting at the airport.

Russia
Argh! Where do I start? Beware: unfriendly, pan-faced officials everywhere. If you are allergic to these, don't even think of getting the visa on your own. Try an agency, which can do it for you in your country of residence only! Transit visas are obtainable on the spot (i.e. no invitation and easy to get) BUT they are really expensive. A double entry transit to Russia on my way to Mongolia and back cost me 240 euros would you believe! That is obscene! But so is the whole country. Sorry if I am offending someone. All comments welcome.

Rwanda
UK passport holders don't need a visa, lucky things. This was one of the few times I did the stupid thing visawise and travelled on my Greek passport. However, it is all rather simple, you can apply for your visa online, just type in www.migration.gov.rw and fill in the form, then get your visa on arrival for $60. Note that you can probably get it at land borders even without this letter, but I am always conservative when on complicated itineraries.

Sao Tome and Principe
You need a visa before arrival unless you have booked with a tour which has organised it all for you. I got mine in Lisbon with a wait of 3 hours for 49 euros. Small queue, no major problems apart from no English spoken.

Saudi Arabia
No magic recipe here! If you don't have a business contact, things are really hard for you. If you do, get them to send you an invitation and along with that and a letter from your employer, and once producing the receipt for paying the visa fee, you will have the visa in 24 hours. It is one of the easiest to get, yet one of the most difficult. Luckily I found a business contact...

Sierra Leone
Beware this visa is expensive. You can get it on arrival, where a complex payment list per nationality doesn't seem to make much sense. US pay the most if I remember well. I got the visa at the Consulate in Banjul, Gambia. Same-day service but it cost me $100.

Somaliland
The country that is not a country! Or is it? You need a visa in advance! Don't enter without it. The best place to get it is in Addis Ababa though you will need a taxi driver who is knowledgeable to find the place, I tried on my own and got completely lost. Same-day service, go in the morning around 9 and get it back in the afternoon, but beware that the door may be shut, there is no buzzer and you may have to bang your heart out to be heard by someone inside. Clearly they are not very busy. There is also a 'consul' in London who can get the visa done for you if you have a pining for visiting this quirky, interesting place.

Sudan
Well-known as a tough visa. Do yourself a favour and go to Cairo first. Go to your embassy and ask for an introduction letter. With this and $100 you should get the Sudan visa within a couple of hours. Unless you have a US passport of course (and UK may also not be overly welcome but I don't know). Beware, the consulate is a mini introduction to Sudan itself, a complete chaos of a place, and officials who huff and puff ominously.

Suriname
This is the only country in the Americas apart from Cuba which requires you to have a visa. It isn't hard to get but the problem is how to get it as there are so few consulates. I had to get some Dutch acquaintances on my case, sent my passport to them and they, dear souls, went through the hassle of getting the visa for me. I imagine you can do it by post too, but phone the embassy in Amsterdam for good measure.

Syria
All sorts of rumours abound about getting it or not at land borders. You can do it if you come from Lebanon. Otherwise, get it in advance. It is not too hard on a Greek passport. The first time in Greece they took 3 days and asked if I was a journalist but required little else. The last time I got it in Belgrade where I do not have any residence and they needed a contact with the Greek embassy to confirm I am not a criminal I suppose. I paid 20 euros and got a 3-month visa for a 15 day stay. He, he, typing these lines in Damascus as we speak (June 3, 2008).

 

Tajikistan

This one is easier than you may think. Contact the Uk-based agency Great Game Travel and they will, for a fee, get you the paperwork necessary and send you the visa invitation, with which you can get the visa at Dushanbe airport on arrival. Things are harder for overland crossings, which are not really wise anyway given the country's neighbours.

 

Tanzania

Visa costs $50 and is issued on arrival with no hassle.

 

Togo

Really friendly officers will issue the visa for you on arrival, making in one of the easiest in Africa.

 

Turkmenistan

A bit of a nightmare really, though I got it on arrival and this seems possible if you go with a tour, which is advisable anyway. The usual paperwork of finding an agency to invite you is involved, and they will send you the scanned invitation with which you will get on the plane and then get the visa at Ashgabat airport. I don't know what happens for overland crossings.

 

Uganda

Visa on arrival, I got a transit one for $15.

 

Ukraine

Back in 2000, I needed a visa for the Ukraine, but as of 2005 when they hosted the Eurovision, this is no longer necessary for western nationals. A great way to see post-Soviet life without the nightmares of a Russian visa.

 

Uzbekistan

Procedure same as for Kazakhstan. You will need an invitation letter from an agency, and with that in hand you can get the visa at your nearest embassy within a few days. I got a transit one for 2 days transit in Athens by virtue of a Kyrgyz visa, without the invitation letter.

 

Vietnam

Back in 1996 when I tried this one, it was all really simple, I just paid a fortune to the Dutch visa agency (website visum.nl) and they did all the dirty work for me and bingo, I got a 2-month visa, which was a rarity at the time. Visas are still necessary, but I don't know how much of a hassle they are given the rising tourism in the country.

 

Yemen

Visa on arrival for $35, have exact change as they often don't have any dollars to give back. No photo necessary, it's all very easy.

 

Zambia

Visa at the border for a normal fee apart from UK passport-holders who must fork out $70 for some strange reason. Silly me, I went for this on my UK passport...

 

Zimbabwe

Despite the bad name of the place nowadays, visas are issued on arrival by friendly and efficient officers for $30. Beware of changing money here, don't do it. If you have local friends have them help you on this count, if not, ask around...otherwise a hamburger will cost you $100.