Why? Because as curious travelers, we believe by seeing a place for ourselves is the best way to mitigate everyone’s fears and bust the myths surrounding it. Traveling is our way of learning on-the-ground knowledge, and visiting these forbidden lands is a channel through which we see a place beyond the headlines. Through our past experiences and stories from other travelers, I’d like to share why we’ve been drawn to these extreme places:
Learning Valuable Lessons
At the start of 2012, news of North Korea’s nuclear weapons was flashing across TV screens around the world. I had been reading about the country for years, and I was watching the country sink deeper and deeper into isolation from the world. DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) is one of the most isolated nations in the world, having tucked itself into secrecy since its division with South Korea. Only local channels are shown on TV, there is no internet anywhere in the country and few foreign tourists visit the country each year (around 2,500 Western tourists not including the Chinese).
I’d heard that North Koreans were only fed the side of the story that their supreme leaders wanted them to hear; I couldn’t help but question if that’s happening to us too. Is the news media obscuring North Korea’s wider picture — is it all true or are our visions being skewed too?
I knew that visiting a country this controversial would subject myself and my work as a travel writer to scrutiny and that strict tourism laws in the country meant that we would be herded from place to place and shown only certain sights of the country. At the same time, I couldn’t miss up this excellent opportunity to step away from everything that’s been fed to us by the news media and make my own judgment for once.
A visit into this misunderstood nation left us awed, wide-eyed, and overwhelmed with emotions. Regardless of the nation’s political standpoint, we found a country with an extreme camaraderie and pride, and people who were just as curious about the world as everyone else is. On the subway, we even interacted with people, showing them our photos and using sign language to talk to them. The biggest surprise for me was just how normal everything felt in DPRK — besides the socialist-style attire and grim-looking buildings, there was little to remind us that this was the country headlining the news worldwide, and often, in a negative light. (Read more about our impression of North Korea).
By asking a simple question and acting upon it, we took away valuable life lessons that TV news or books would never be able to teach me.
People Are People
Countries like Afghanistan, Iraq, and North Korea, are names that have unfortunately been associated with war for decades. These countries may have issues with political disputes, unrest or natural disasters — but it is often in these troubled regions where you can find heartfelt hospitality, raw rugged landscapes and untainted authenticity.
We understand that the history of America’s recent relationship with Iran — or at least the relationship between the two governments — is rocky (I state the obvious). With the recent release of American hikers and the even more recent dust up over the alleged plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the U.S., an already difficult relationship has been made even more so.
….we understand why some of you may have concerns for our safety. We want to alleviate some of those fears and let you know we’ll be in good hands.
Furthermore, our experience in other places perceived as unsafe – from Burma to Uzbekistan – tells us that the story on the ground is often very different than what appears in media. And no matter what happens between governments, politicians and “leaders”, at the end of each day, people are people — they are generally good and life goes on for them in many fundamental ways just like it does for you and me.
Tourism Can Bring World Peace
Many of these regions need tourism badly to fight off poverty and resolve conflicts. Egypt for instance needs tourists now more than ever to revive the tourism industry that suffered severely due to the revolution; South Sudan is another good example of a brand new country whose fragile economy can benefit substantially from visitors. Most of all, tourism can be a powerful tool to fight off discrimination and advocate equality. If done correctly, it can help to educate the parties involved and the outside world, and bring peace.
Despite its violent history of banditry, Badakhshan has recently become one of the calmest parts of Afghanistan, relatively free of strife for the last ten years. We’re told that even at the height of the Taliban’s control in the country, the cultural norms in this region were never affected by the Talib mindset to the same degree as in the south. Given the reception we’ve received, and the kindnesses of people like Durmohammed and Zeki, I have no doubt this must be true.
I’ve come to realize that, despite the raging war in the south and other ethnic issues, this is still a country in many ways like any other. Perhaps someday Afghanistan will become a country that’s no longer feared, and until then, I relish the smiles, greetings, handshakes and kindness of the Afghans in my memories.
Photo of Afghan girls by Stephen Lioy
Traveling to ‘danger zones’ clearly has both its rewards and risks. For visitors, there are the obvious perils involved, such as terrorist attacks, kidnapping and other crimes; but with some safety precaution and advanced planning, you might be returning home with a gratifying travel experience.
If you’re planning to travel to any of these destinations, there are a few things to keep in mind:
Check the latest blogs, websites, and forums to find out if it’s safe to visit.
Follow the news to keep yourself updated of the political situation from time to time.
Keep your plans flexible and be opened to last minute changes.
When in the country, blend in to the crowd by dressing conservatively and not attracting too much attention.
Be respectful of the locals and their ideas and do not try to force your opinions on them.
Keep your family informed of where you’ll be visiting and your hotel info. Leave instructions on who to contact if they don’t hear from you after a certain period of time.
If you are caught in a dire situation, report to your embassy in the destination as soon as possible.