It may be a cliche, but it’s true: if you want to get off the beaten path when you travel, at some point you’re going to have to take a long-distance bus ride. Even if you’re not a backpacker, some destinations are accessible only by the most inconvenient of methods. I’ve traveled by bus, Land Rover, bush plane, horseback and canoe, and while not always comfortable, I take great delight in using alternative forms of transit.
If the idea of taking the bus gives you the heebie-jeebies, be aware that it’s primarily bus travel in the U.S. that sucks. I’ve yet to have an experience on Greyhound (it’s called the “Dirty Dog” for a reason) that wasn’t totally jacked up. There’s always a toilet overflowing, an addict nodding out and drooling on your shoulder (true story) and a guy who can’t stop screaming into his cellphone or having a conversation with himself. But I love long-haul trips in developing nations, no matter how janky the ride. It’s the best way I know of to see and experience a country. It’s cultural immersion at both its most infuriating and its best, but I’ve yet to have a bad experience with regard to fellow passengers.
There are, however, some key items you’ll want to bring with you. I speak from painful/mortifying experience. Read on for what you’ll need for any bus journey lasting more than a couple of hours (bear in mind that in many parts of the world, you can’t rely upon bus timetables; I recently took a four-hour trip in Paraguay that turned into 11 due to monsoonal flooding. And there was no bathroom on board). Bringing snacks and extra water is crucial; usually vendors will come on board during stops, but you should never rely on this.
1. A blanket or ultra/microlight sleeping bag
You’d be surprised how many clapped-out buses crank the AC. If you get cold easily, 14 hours of that might render you nearly hypothermic. Conversely, if you’re sensitive to heat and in a tropical country, bring along a packet of Emergen-C or electrolyte chews (I love Honey Stingers and coconut water) and something to protect you from the sun.
Trust me, if you’ve ever suffered from gastrointestinal issues while on a long bus trip, you’ll do anything, anything, to ensure it never happens again. That said, don’t let fear deter you from trying all those great street foods. I’ve learned, however, to dial down the gluttony before a lengthy journey. Ladies, I’ve also had to deal with a UTI on a bumpy 14-hour ride through rural Mexico. Pack your first-aid kit accordingly.
3. Toilet paper
See above; if you’re lucky enough to even be on a bus with a toilet, don’t count on it being well equipped. Also be prepared for pit stops on the road, whether by your necessity or someone else’s. TP is also great to use as a tissue, as an impromptu washcloth, or to wipe that weird goo off of your shoe from the aforementioned pit stop. Hey, I’m just reporting the facts.
4. Sleep aid
Even if you don’t suffer from insomnia, you may want to bring along something to help your slumber on overnight trips. Rutted-out roads, blaring DVD players, blasting radio, crying children – sometimes all at once will make you glad you have an ace in the hole. If nothing else, bring ear plugs.
5. Baby wipes and/or antibacterial gel
You’ll be grateful for these on sweltering rides, especially when the windows are jammed open and you’re dealing with noxious clouds of carbon monoxide or dust. Also useful after aforementioned bathroom runs, and before snacking.
I’m the kind of person who can conjure up an excuse to visit just about any place. I grew up in Buffalo, America’s most unfairly maligned city, and so I identify with underdog destinations – places with bad weather, crime, ugly people, rude people, you name it and I probably still want to go there.
But there are some places on this planet that even I do not want to visit. Places where you might be taken hostage and have your head chopped off; places where extremists shoot teenage girls in the head because they want to be educated; places where you could be stoned to death for having a child out of wedlock; places where terrorists plant bombs in churches, places so polluted the local fish have three eyes.
One can make an anecdotal case against visiting just about any place in the world. As we saw in Newtown, Connecticut, evil can happen anywhere. And today’s hellholes could be tomorrow’s next hot destinations. But you won’t find me in any of these places in 2013.Anywhere Near Somalia
In March, my colleague Sean McLachlan reported that the security situation in Somalia was improving, but I wouldn’t rush right out to your travel agent to book a holiday in what most people consider to be the world’s most dangerous country just yet. Mogadishu made our list last year, but after talking to Paul and Rachel Chandler, a British couple who were taken hostage at sea by Somali pirates a good 900 miles off Somalia’s coast in 2009, I would avoid a much wider radius than simply “Mog.”
There may have been some improvements in the security situation since the Chandlers were released after a year in captivity, but there are still plenty of reasons to stay away. In January, gunmen kidnapped an American man in the northern town of Galkayo, the same town where an American woman and a Dane were taken hostage last October. In February, the militant group Al-Shabaab, which has been pushed out of Somalia’s cities by the country’s U.N.-backed government but still maintains control of some rural areas, merged with Al-Qaeda.
The United Kingdom’s Foreign Office details at least nine other violent incidents since then in its most recent travel warning on Somalia. If you do brave the risks and visit Somalia, think twice before checking into the Jazeera Palace Hotel in Mogadishu. Al-Shabaab killed eight people there in a failed plot to assassinate the Somali president in September.
At least five million people were killed in the DRC in what’s been called Africa’s First World War from 1994-2003, and a proxy war, waged between rebel groups backed by Rwanda and the Kinshasa government, continued through 2008. Sadly the situation in the eastern part of the country has deteriorated this year as several armed groups like M23 continue to vie for control of this resource-rich part of the country.
In the U.S. State Department’s recent travel warning on the DRC, travelers are cautioned against the continued presence of Lord’s Resistance Army thugs and armed groups who are “known to pillage, steal vehicles, kidnap, rape, kill, and carry out military or paramilitary operations in which civilians are indiscriminately targeted.” The DRC is rated dead last in the U.N.’s Human Development Index for good reason: it’s a basket case in danger of becoming a full-on failed state. Other than aid workers, diplomats, mercenaries and shady businesspeople, no one in their right mind is traveling to the eastern DRC, and the rest of the country isn’t exactly the South of France either.
Syria, with its ancient capital, said to be the world’s oldest continuously inhabited city, historic souks, castles and impressive archaeological sites, was once a popular destination for backpackers. Now, nearly two years into a bloody civil war, the tourists are long gone with seemingly little hope of them returning anytime soon. More than 30,000 people have been killed in a conflict that has created nearly 500,000 refugees and about 2.5 million internally displaced people. But when peace returns to Syria, the tourists will certainly return to this interesting and hospitable country.
Last year, we recognized Kandahar Province as a distinctly violent, nasty place we had no intention of visiting in the near future but given the fact that nearly twice as many ISAF Coalition troops have perished in neighboring Helmand Province, extremists there could make a strong argument that they were snubbed.
And Helmand isn’t just a dangerous place for Coalition troops. A recent AP story asserted that despite a vigorous effort by the U.S.-led Coalition to rid the province of insurgents, residents are still afraid to go out after dark when bands of marauding criminals roam the streets. The province is a hotbed of poppy production, which finances the insurgents’ campaigns, and many residents support the Taliban.
And if you find yourself in Helmand, perish the thought; don’t expect the police to help you either. In 2012, at least 62 Coalition troops and 86 Afghans have been shot dead by Afghan police or soldiers, including fatal incidents in Helmand in August, September and October. Only a complete lunatic would plan a trip to Helmand Province, but Trip Advisor, God bless them, does indeed have a page entitled “Helmand Province Vacations” under the tab “Helmand Province Tourism” as though such a thing existed. Not surprisingly, there are no hotels, restaurants or things to do listed.
Mali, home to the legendary city of Timbuktu and one of the richest cultural and music scenes in West Africa, took several turns for the worse in 2012 and is now off limits to any traveler hoping to go home in one piece. Mali has had not one but two coups in 2012, and in April, Tuareg rebels declared an independent state called Azawad in the north of the country.
Before you rush out to apply for a tourist visa to Azawad, be warned that the territory’s economy revolves around kidnapping, most of them carried out by the thugs who run the place. There are ten European and three Algerian hostages currently being held in Northern Mali and there have been several other hostage-taking incidents involving tourists and diplomats in recent years, including an incident involving a Frenchman in Southwest Mali in November.
Edwin Dyer, a British tourist, was taken hostage and then beheaded in 2009, and Michel Germaneau, a 78-year-old French aid worker was taken hostage in neighboring Niger and was then reportedly killed in Mali in 2010. In the north, Islamists are known to administer rough justice. In one case, a police chief sawed off his own brother’s hand, and in July, in the northern town of Aguelhok, a couple was stoned to death for having a child out of wedlock.
Mexico gets all the bad press for its drug and gang violence, but on a per-capita basis, Honduras may be even more violent. Tourists flock to Roatán and other safe, idyllic beach getaways in Honduras, but San Pedro Sula ranks first in the world in per capita murders (1,143 murders in a city of just 719,447 in 2011) and Tegucigalpa ranks fifth. The Honduran districts of Yoro – with 110 murders per 100,000 – and Morazán – with 86 per 100,000 – both in the interior of the country, are also plagued by violence.
According to a 2011 UN Report, Honduras has the highest murder rate of any country in the world, with 86 murders per 100,000 inhabitants. I have a friend who used to teach English in San Pedro Sula in the ’90s and he said that the city used to be reasonably safe prior to Hurricane Mitch, which wreaked havoc on the country in 1998.
Boko Haram, a militant Islamist group that seeks to establish an Islamic state under Sharia law, is one of the nastiest terrorist groups in the world. Their late leader, Mohammed Yusuf, told the BBC in 2009 that he believed the earth was flat and said that education “spoils the belief in one God.”
Their targets have included the Nigerian military, the police, opponents of Sharia law and foreigners. Their tactics have included planting bombs in churches, attacking a UN compound in Abuja, taking hostages and engaging in extrajudicial assassinations. Boko Haram militants killed at least 186 people with a series of gun and bomb attacks near their base in Kano in January 2012 alone. On Christmas Eve this year, gunmen shot dead six Christians and set fire to their church in the northern province of Yobe.
And Boko Haram aren’t the only troublemakers in the region. Another Al-Qaeda affiliated terrorist group killed two hostages, one from Britain, and one from Italy, in the town of Sokoto in March, and a German engineer that was being held hostage in Kano was killed in a rescue attempt along with five others in May. According to the State Department, criminals have abducted at least 140 foreigner nationals in Nigeria, including seven U.S. citizens, since January 2009.
Intrepid, some would say ill-advised, travelers can now visit Chernobyl, and some hard heads have even returned to live in the off-limits Fukushima exclusion zone in Japan, but the area around the primary testing venue for the Soviet Union’s nuclear arsenal, called “The Polygon,” remains closed, more than 20 years after Kazakhstan became the first country to voluntarily give up its nuclear weapons in 1991. The Soviets used the steppes of eastern Kazakhstan to test more than 400 nuclear bombs during the Cold War and to this day, residents of the city of Semipalatinsk (renamed Semey) suffer disproportionately from cancer and birth deformities blamed on continuing radiation.
Although the Polygon itself is technically off limits, it’s an area the size of Belgium with poorly marked boundaries and farmers allow their animals to graze there, according to The Telegraph. Stay away and avoid ordering horsemeat from eastern Kazakhstan if at all possible.
“It’s not that I love grossness itself, but I did come to love many of the polluted places I visited,” he told the New York Times. “And I object to the outright disgust these kinds of places get saddled with, because once that disgust becomes entrenched, we’re more likely to give up on them.”
In his book, Blackwell even defends Linfen, a coal town in Shanxi province, China, which was named the most polluted city in the world in 2006 by the Blacksmith Institute, and was subsequently put at or near the top of every top ten most polluted places list all over the net. (Last year, a city called Ahvaz in Iran topped a World Health Organization air pollution list.)
But it turns out that the Blacksmith list wasn’t rank ordered, but rather alphabetized by country, so Linfen was merely one of the ten nastiest places in the world and not necessarily the nastiest. Still, even Blackwell had to admit that the dust and pollution gave him a nasty cough.
“Chronic respiratory disease and even lung cancer must stalk the city’s boulevards and alleyways,” he wrote.
Pound-for-pound the Swat Valley and the seven semiautonomous Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) near the border with Afghanistan might have more ignorant, violent extremists than any other place on the planet. One could fill a large volume with horror stories about bad things that have happened in this part of northwest Pakistan, but exhibit A of the brutality and extremism that pervades this area is the October 9 assassination attempt on 15-year-old Malala Yousafzai that wounded her and two others perpetrated by vermin who personify the word evil.
Yousafzai, who was shot in the head on a school bus and is now recovering in Britain, became a target for advocating on behalf of locals girls who want to be educated. In recent years, thousands of Pakistanis have died in terrorist attacks in the northwest and despite the U.S. drone strike campaign, which has pushed U.S. favorability ratings in Pakistan down to 12%, the region is still a hotbed for extremists.
Pockets of ignorance and extremism exist in other parts of the country as well. On December 18 and 19, gunmen shot dead seven people working on a U.N.-backed polio vaccination drive, four were killed in Karachi, and the others perished in the northwest, most from gunshots to the head, fired at close range.
Notes: Special thanks to Jay Dunne and Bernard Londoni, security analysts at iJet, a risk-management firm based in Annapolis, for providing me with intel on some of the locales listed above. A previous version of this story incorrectly noted that Robert Fowler was taken hostage in Mali. He was taken hostage in neighboring Niger.
I traveled to Beirut earlier this year with bmi (British Midland International), the East Midlands-based airline partially absorbed into British Airways in the spring. My Beirut trip was meant to be the third installment in an ongoing series called “Far Europe and Beyond,” which reached a premature end in the lead-up to the airline’s sale to International Airlines Group (IAG), the parent of British Airways and Iberia.
“Far Europe and Beyond” was, as its title suggests, focused on several cities along on Europe’s margins and just beyond. I visited Tbilisi and Yerevan last year, Beirut earlier this year, and had hoped to carry on to three additional cities, one (Baku) within Europe and Almaty and Bishkek (see above), both indisputably outside of Europe.
BA has absorbed many bmi routes and withdrawn others. I did a little cursory research and discovered that two of the cities I originally proposed for the series (Bishkek and Yerevan) have been dropped – as has Tehran, where the Yerevan-London bmi flight I took last October originated.
Last week, in response to an email query, a helpful British Airways spokesperson confirmed that the above destinations have indeed not been included in BA’s winter schedule. When I asked whether or not BA had any intention to initiate new routes to the Caucasus and Central Asia, she told me that there were no immediate plans to do so, and added that she suspected that future route development would focus on destinations further east. She also pointed out that the airline has just begun to fly nonstop between London and Seoul, an exciting development in light of the ascendance of Korean popular culture and the recent debut of a Seoul-based correspondent at Gadling.
Here’s a little plea to British Airways: please bring these cities back, perhaps looped into other routes on a once-a-week basis. What about a stop in Bishkek coming back from Almaty or a stop in Yerevan en route to Tbilisi?If these routes can’t be returned to service, perhaps they could be replaced with similarly enthralling new destinations in the general neighborhood, all direct from London. What about a flight to Uralsk, gateway to the gas reserves of West Kazakhstan’s Karachaganak Field? How about seasonal flights to Georgia’s Black Sea holiday town of Batumi? What about making a big pre-Olympic fuss over Sochi? (The 2014 Winter Olympics are just 15 months away.) Why not resume a previously abandoned route to Ekaterinburg?
Pleasing me would form a terrible basis for route development decisions, granted, but there have to be profitable routes in this general region that are not served by other oneworld alliance airlines.
Do it for the love of commerce and industry in the post-Soviet space, BA.
I said a tentative goodbye to Marina, not knowing whether she wanted to lose me or not. I didn’t have the mental capacity to deal with the chaos and uncertainty of a new place, so I was pleased when Marina said we should share a taxi into town. But before we could leave the station, two soldiers at the exit tried to shake me down.
Marina managed to shake them off and we hopped into a taxi that, although nameless, looked like a vintage ’57 Chevy. We headed out of the station at an absurdly cautious speed and began rolling through deserted vacant fields when an argument broke out between the driver and Marina. I had no idea what was going on, but Marina said it was just a disagreement over what route we’d take.
I couldn’t help but fear that perhaps they were planning to rob me and were having a spat over who would get what. I had expected an ancient Silk Road city like Bukhara to have a small city plan, with an old center right near the train station. Yet either I had thought wrong or I was being taken to a field to be slaughtered.After about 15 minutes of driving through a barren wasteland, we pulled up in front of a dismal, Soviet era housing project that arose almost out of nowhere amidst a backdrop of vacant lots. Malnourished looking children were playing with sticks in front of one of the buildings and a few mangy looking stray dogs were picking through an overflowing trash bin.
I didn’t need to enter Marina’s building for everything to suddenly make perfect sense. I had judged her harshly for prostituting herself in the Middle East but I hadn’t considered the fact that she had grown up in grinding poverty and had no other way to improve her lot in life. Who was I to judge her and the decisions she made? I was also pretty certain that her argument with the taxi driver was over who would get dropped off first. She probably didn’t want me to see where she lived.
Marina got out of the car, and I asked if we could meet up so she could show me around town.
“That probably isn’t a good idea,” she said, much to my chagrin. “But here’s my address, send me a letter, OK?”
And with that she leaned into the cab and gave me a quick, surprising kiss before retreating into her apartment building. I planned to write, but I lost the scrap of paper and couldn’t. As we made our way towards the B & B I had picked in the old town, we passed an inconspicuous looking restaurant called “Italian Pizzeria.”
“Stop the car, STOP please!” I called out.
I paid my fare, grabbed my bag and walked in as images of hulking slices of gooey New York style slices danced in my addled brain. The “Italian Pizzeria” had a ’70s décor complete with swiveling chairs, drawn flowery curtains and a room temperature of about 90. I was the only diner.
“Hello!” called out my young waiter in English.
“You speak English?” I asked, pleasantly surprised.
“Of course!” he replied.
“What kind of pizza is best here?” I asked.
“It’s likeabobolihorsemeatpizza,” he said, so fast that I couldn’t understand him.
“Can you repeat that, please?” I asked.
“You know Boboli?” he asked.
“Boboli pizza crust?” I asked, feeling very much like I’d entered the Uzbek Twilight Zone.
“Yes,” he said.
“Wait, how do you know Boboli?” I asked.
“I was an exchange student in North Carolina,” he said.
“I see, well, what did you say was on this Boboli-like pizza?” I asked.
“Horse meat,” he said, smiling broadly.
I’d been warned that horsemeat was considered a staple in Central Asia, yet after a grueling 75-hour death ride with very little food, a Bobolihorsemeatpizza was not precisely what I had in mind.
“I’ll take the Boboli horse meat pizza without the horse meat, OK?”
“You are American?” he asked.
“That’s right,” I admitted.
“I think Americans don’t like horse meat,” he said, smiling.
“I think you’re right,” I conceded.
“But how do they know, you never have eat it I think,” he said.
I was in no mood for a discussion on the merits of horsemeat, I just wanted a goddamn pizza and eventually I got one, for 600 som, or less than $1. I paid for the pizza with a U.S. dollar and wondered if any pizzerias in the U.S. would accept Uzbek som.
Feeling much better with some food in my belly, I set off towards the old town, looking for a place called Sasha’s B & B. It turned out to be an ornately decorated old place with two levels looking onto a serene courtyard. (see photo of the author at Sasha’s below) I had decided sometime shortly after I’d discovered the turd on the toilet back on the Exile Express that I would splurge on accommodation when and if I reached Bukhara.
I hadn’t defined what “splurge” meant, but since I was spending only about $3-$10 per night on accommodation, I envisioned forking out something more than that. I was shown a room that looked fit for Genghis Khan himself. It was ornately decked out with fabulous Bukhara rugs, a big bed with a hand-caved headboard that would have sold for $8,000 in a SoHo furniture shop and a fancy TV set.
“How much?” I asked, fully expecting the woman to say something like “4 billion som.”
“Twenty dollars” she said.
It was a bargain, but in three months on the road, I’d never spent more than $15 per night, so I hesitated. The woman saw me vacillating and added, “If that’s too much we have basic rooms across the street for $10.”
I didn’t want a basic room; I wanted the kind of room a sultan who travels with a harem would occupy if he were in town. Yet, for some odd reason I couldn’t permit myself this little luxury. It seemed extravagant, gluttonous, and unnecessary.
“I’ll take the more basic room for ten,” I said.
In speaking those words, I felt like a reluctant groom at a shotgun wedding grudgingly saying, “I do.” And as I headed off to my “basic” room I felt like I’d changed. I’d become a man of simple taste.
I woke up in a sweat and was told by Marina that we had crossed into Turkmenistan, a country I had no transit visa for. The compartment was a white-hot crucible of heat that was exacerbated by the fact that none of the windows would open.
The train stopped at a dusty little outpost and the conductor, Ermat, already drunk at 10 a.m., came by with a hammer and began smashing out an entire large windowpane. I stepped out onto the platform to take some pictures of the train for posterity and was immediately accosted by a soldier. Marina rushed over and interpreted for me.
“He says you took a picture in a military area – you must give your film,” she said.”But all my pictures of this train trip are on this roll,” I said. “And I just took a shot of the train, not a military area. Tell him I’m keeping it.”
“Dayveed, please give it to him – you will be in trouble!” Marina protested.
Noticing that some kind of brouhaha was taking place, a crowd began to form behind me. After 70-some odd hours on the train I was in a foul mood, and almost didn’t care what happened to me. A small entourage formed behind me as I was asked to follow the soldier into an office in the station.
“Marina, tell him we don’t have time for this, our train could leave,” I protested.
“Just give him the film and we can go,” she pleaded.
“I am NOT giving him my film!” I insisted.
We were led into a large room where four other soldiers stood around below a framed photo of Turkmenbashi, the country’s mad dictator, who named days of the week and months after he and his mother, and banned opera, ballet and the circus, among other things.
After I refused once more to cough up my film they asked to see my visa for Turkmenistan. I handed them my passport and pointed out my Uzbek visa as well as my ornamental Kazakh one. It seemed logical at the time, but was probably akin to a Guatemalan showing up at Kennedy Airport with Mexican and Canadian visas and demanding to be let in.
“Day-VEED,” Marina said with a greater tone of urgency. “They say you must give them the film or you cannot leave!”
I opened up my camera and pulled out my film, stretching the whole roll in a highly theatrical manner and then spiked it down into a garbage can at one of the soldier’s feet and stormed away leaving the circle of onlookers shocked and speechless.
I stalked out of the office and back towards the train half expecting to be clubbed from behind, or placed into a gulag, but nothing happened. As I sat in my compartment a few witnesses came in and just looked at me as though I were a mental patient, and I began to think that perhaps I would be if we didn’t get to Bukhara soon.
A very well dressed young man who turned out to have been from Tajikistan approached me, and said, in flawless English, “I think you just did a very foolish thing. You have to realize where you are and be more careful. These people will put you in jail – they don’t care if you are American.”
A few hours later, our train passed across the Uzbek border and a couple of moneychangers began working the train. Marina explained that if I changed money at a bank I’d get only 200 Uzbek Som to the dollar, compared to 700 or more with a moneychanger. The rub was that the largest denomination was a 200-som note, so if you wanted to change $100 on the black market, you’d have to be ready to carry a huge bundle of notes. Changing money on the black market was technically illegal, so one needed to be discreet and have a big bag to carry the notes in.
An hour after my neighbors tricked me into believing that we’d arrived in Bukhara, we did in fact pull into the station, but I didn’t believe them until I actually saw Marina alight onto the platform. Aliya and Dima, who seemed like a married couple by this point in the trip, still had several hours to go until Tashkent, but joined us out on the platform to see us off.
I felt utterly exhausted, like some starving, island castaway who’d just been rescued. We had boarded the train on Monday at 11:30 a.m. and it was 3:40 p.m. on Thursday as we arrived in Bukhara. We had spent almost a full workweek on board.
I wasn’t sure whether Marina was going to share a cab with me into town or if she didn’t ever want to see me again. Dima and Aliya hugged me goodbye, and I felt like I’d miss them. I hardly knew them, but I felt as though we’d been through a terrible ordeal together. Aliya, who had the top button of her Al Pacino Couture jeans unbuttoned, Al Bundy style, said, “Dayveed, can you fax me a visa to America?”
“Fax you a visa?” I asked incredulously.
“Yes, I want to come to America – Cal-eee-forn-ya.”
This is a five part series that will run in installments this week. Check back tomorrow for the final part of this story.