Backpacking the Axis of Evil

Some people look at the US State Department travel warnings as a guideline of countries to stay away from. If you consider Thailand, etc overrated by the “nomadic” set, why not look the other direction and see what countries aren’t considered tourist hotspots?

After doing the Trans-Siberian/Trans-Mongolian railway two years ago, I figured why not take another epic train trip? And epic train trips demand epic destinations that no one goes to on their vacation. Why not Iran? Sure, Iran and the US aren’t too friendly right now, but that’s part of the appeal. Anyone can backpack through Europe or do a “round the world” trip, but why not go into somewhere different?

As an American citizen, there are a whole host of issues: getting an independent visa is practically impossible, and once you’re there, your credit cards and ATM cards won’t work either due to treasury restrictions. And on the way back, US Immigration might not take too kindly to me going there. Either way, it should be quite exciting.

The train seems like the most interesting way to get into Iran. After consulting with Seat 61, the immensely helpful train website, there’s a train that leaves from Istanbul to Tehran once a week, taking about 70 hours to cross 1800 miles of the Turkish countryside. Flying into Khomeini airport doesn’t hold any appeal because it robs an epic trip like this of a sense of adventure. The train trip itself in first class is a hair under 40 Euros, which seems suspiciously inexpensive.

Getting a visa as a US citizen is a bit more difficult. You’re required to have a tour guide, and an official tourism invite letter, which puts the cost at around $150. Having an official tour guide can either be helpful or quite a hassle. Outside of day trips, I’ve only had one tour guide and it was a mixed experience.

[Photo: Flickr/jiahungli]

Pittsburgh restaurant features ‘conflict cuisine’

Most American travelers will never set foot in Iran, but at least now if they make it to Pittsburgh, they can enjoy some of the country’s delicious cuisine. It’s the idea behind a new take-out restaurant called Conflict Kitchen, a new eatery that’s attempting to feature cuisine from countries the United States is in conflict with.

Conflict Kitchen might serve food, but it’s hardly your normal carry-out joint. The project, which was started by artist Jon Rubin, will regularly shift themes to feature a different “conflict country” and promote cross-cultural understanding. The first four months are devoted to a collaboration with Pittsburgh’s Iranian community. In addition to delicious food like the Kubideh Sandwich, Conflict Kitchen also plans to host events, performances and discussion surrounding this much discussed Middle Eastern country. Though there’s been no announcement on the project’s website, chances are good that other “rogue states” like North Korea, Venezuela and Afghanistan will get similar treatment.

The Conflict Kitchen project raises an interesting question. Who are we demonizing when we disagree with a country’s politics? Is it the government of that country? Or is it also the people who live there, many of whom have nothing to do with the policies we dislike? Perhaps by traveling and through projects like Conflict Kitchen we can learn to better differentiate between the two.

Top tourist sights Americans can’t visit

As you might realize, there are certain countries that are considered “no-go’s” for American travelers, be it for political or economic or other reasons. Publication Foreign Policy took a closer look at this question of prohibited places, recently creating a list of the “Top Tourist Spots Americans Can’t Visit,” a rundown of the top tourist attractions in otherwise “taboo” locations like Iran, Somalia, Burma and Cuba. Who knew Mogadishu had coral reefs teeming with fish just off the shore? Too bad you’re likely to be kidnapped by warlords if you try to visit.

While this sort of list is a deterrent for many, others eat common sense for breakfast, bringing back some fascinating stories in the process. It’s not that they can’t see the danger – these countries can be violent, unstable, and often downright nasty places. But that doesn’t mean they have nothing to offer. Many have distinguished histories as centers of culture, great monuments and great natural wonders. As Foreign Policy points out for instance, the vast ruins of Persepolis in Southern Iran offer a breathtaking view of the tombs and palaces of Persian rulers Xerxes I and Darius the Great. In Cuba, the settlement of Baracoa was the colonial home of Spanish Conquistadors, and also one of the first places Columbus set foot in the New World.

Check out the list. Nobody is suggesting you should/can make a visit, but these places can offer us further insight into the many subtleties that truly define a location’s identity.

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