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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
We departed, ironically just as a Korean Air 777 ultra-modern jet had landed from
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
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
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
The customs suspiciously searched my bag to discover a tiny magnet which I had bought as a souvenir in
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
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
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
We reach the Arch of Triumph which is bigger than its namesake in
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
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
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
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.
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
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
But it is still morning and one thing we can do in the rain is see the
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
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.
They opened the
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
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
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.
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
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
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
At the ground floor of the library there is an exhibition of international books. Who said
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
This one is the lamest of all, a
In the evening we go to the
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
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
Written in March 2007.
It seems quite incredible as I sit here in sweltering
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
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
It was an easy drive through
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
You know me well enough. I did it. I walked north and crossed the
Finally I made my way deeper into the area which was obviously not the hole of the earth. I mean even
The news at the Eritrean consulate, after all that effort, was rather disappointing. They wanted a letter from my embassy 'recommending' me.
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
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
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
On to the
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
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...
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
Getting here is not easy. There is only one way, and that is the twice-weekly flight of Air
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
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
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
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.
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
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
This morning was my last memory of
Airplane day is the centre of action in
Trip taken in December 2006.
Tue Dec 12. Lift off from
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
Fri Dec 15 Land in
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
Dec 17 1 am night flight to Guam via Yap which is one of the four islands of the
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
Man I need to sleep...I cant just drive till 5 pm...what to do? Cinema sleep. Malls here abound, this is the
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
Flight to Pohnpei (capital of the Federal States of
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
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
Flight to Majuro in
Kwajalein is an American base from where they arranged nuclear experiments in the 60s in nearby
Couldnt sleep at all. Woke up at midnight and tried to relax but couldnt. Watched some TV. Yes CNN and BBC World from the
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
Tarawa is also an atoll, much like Majuro only longer and slightly broader (slightly) and is the capital of the little known
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
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
In 3 hours and a really good flight by Air Pacific (economy class much better than Continental's business) and landing in
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
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
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.
And this is where I am guys. In Nadi.
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
In fact never before have I shopped so much on a trip, though apart from jeans and a new pair of sneakers bought in
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
However, when all is said and done, the first was the best. I still cannot get over the romance and beauty of
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.
This was rather straight-forward in the autumn of 2003 when I tried it. I simply sent my (Greek) passport to the
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).
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.
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.
I got this one at the airport in
I was lucky here. There is a regulation that if there is no representation in your home country, you can get the visa at
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
You can get a 48-hour transit on the border with
Impossible to go it alone unless you visit a small border town with
One of the easiest African visas. I lucked out, as the French embassy in
If there is no embassy in your country, you can get one at the airport in
In Europe apparently this is a rather troublesome visa, but on the road in
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...
This is supposed to be quite a problem, especially since the country is politically unstable. However, in
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.
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.
Transit visa issued on arrival in
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...
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
This seems to be problematic for many people but in
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.
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.
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!).
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.
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...
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.
I went to the embassy in
Considered one of the most difficult visas to get, I was lucky in that there is representation in
When I visited in 2002, a visa was required and I received it at the embassy in
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
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
All citizens need a visa for
Well...if you are Greek, going to
I am not insane and would not touch
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.
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
Visa issued on arrival in
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
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
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).
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
Visa issued on arrival in
You must have a visa before travelling to
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
Visa issued on arrival at Antanarivo with lots of colourful stamps pasted on your passport in the process. No problems!
A strange list of countries does or does not need a visa for
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
First, be sure you want to go there! Truly, there is just sand... anyway, French embassy in
Back in 2000, you needed a visa for
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.
Visa issued at the border with no problems at all. Lovely place.
Best to contact a tour operator in
Well, if you really want to make it to
Courtesy of the honourary consul in
A tricky one, not because it is hard to get, but because there are few
This is justly regarded as one of the 5 hardest visas to get in
Visa available on arrival, though there may be some miscommunication since many officials speak surprisingly little English, plus inevitable queuing...
Given the turmoil in the country, this one may be a bit demanding. In
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.
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.
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
You need a visa before arrival unless you have booked with a tour which has organised it all for you. I got mine in
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...
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
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
Well-known as a tough visa. Do yourself a favour and go to
This is the only country in the
All sorts of rumours abound about getting it or not at land borders. You can do it if you come from
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
Visa costs $50 and is issued on arrival with no hassle.
Really friendly officers will issue the visa for you on arrival, making in one of the easiest in
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.
Visa on arrival, I got a transit one for $15.
Back in 2000, I needed a visa for the
Procedure same as for
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.
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.
Visa at the border for a normal fee apart from
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.