In November, the Democrats took control of the US Senate, spelling the beginning of the end for Bush, while elsewhere we’ve had floods in Indonesia and Malaysia; poisoned Russian spies in London; nuclear weapons testing in North Korea, a military coup in Thailand, Castro’s ailing health and Pinochet’s last gasp. Plenty to keep the worldly-wise interested and Polo’s Bastards’ writers busy.
So what news of the places that have been making the front page headlines of 2006? Where are you next going to follow your wanderlust, and where are you going to avoid like the plague. Polo’s Bastards have hand-picked the top ten worst destinations (in their opinion) to help you decide. Click on the photos to enlarge.
There was really never any doubt that Iraq would top the list again, at the end of another year of widespread carnage and chaos. Conflict-related body count figures for 2006, alone, vary wildly. Some claim tens of thousands, while others claim several hundreds of thousands, and although access to this battleground, for journalists, photographers and other adventure types, is as easy as it’s ever been, caution is an absolute necessity, as the death toll certainly has much mileage left in it. The north remains relatively safe, although the Kurdish PKK are still seriously pissing the Turks off and hiding out in their N Iraq safe haven; leading one to think that it’s only a matter of time before Ankara sanctions an incursion across the border to weed the fighters out. Who knows? They may already have done so. Do we really think N Iraq will remain stable for long? You decide.
In the rest of Iraq, the US and Britain are both under considerable pressure to start withdrawing their respective forces, but the sectarian lawlessness that now grips the country, will surely continue in their wake, and will undoubtedly see Iraq here at the top of Polo’s Bastards’ top ten worst destinations for a long time to come.
While the country seems to have picked itself up and brushed itself down following years of Taliban stranglehold; and having celebrated the coalition forces’ sacking of the errant Islamists, the buggers have in fact tenaciously maintained dominance in the southern provinces and made the region a no-go area for anyone without a burka or a long wizened beard (or both). British forces are entrenched in the hostile lands, trying to eradicate the blighters but are, quite frankly, taking a kicking. Helmand Province in southern Afghanistan definitely remains out of bounds for the wish-you-were-here crowd. In fact that goes for all the southern provinces, although we at Polo’s Bastards heard from one crazy guy, who, just a couple of months ago, donned a turban and hitchhiked to Qalat in Zabol! It’ll be a while before the adventure tourism companies put the Kuchi Nomad Hospitality Tour back on their schedule. Stick to Kabul; we hear the rugs are lovely.
Another of last year’s top ten contenders makes the grade again this year, as nothing really seems to have changed at all in this part of the North Caucasus. Even if you can get yourself a permit to enter this troubled land, you’re not likely to have the right to roam without a collection of Russian soldiers escorting you every step of the way, making sure you don’t photograph anything, or talk to anyone, that they don’t want you to. Not that you’d want to go out on your own around here to walk your lunch off, as kidnapping would most likely spoil your afternoon stroll real fast. In any case, with the poisoning of former KGB agent, Aleksander Litvinenko, topping headlines towards the end of the year, along with his well known association to Chechen rebel envoy, Akhmed Zakayev, the Kremlin is going to be doubly sensitive about foreigners wandering around Grozny, digging for newsworthy gossip. Don’t expect visa-on-arrival to be available in Chechnya for a while yet.
2006 has not been a good year for Chadian President, Idriss Deby, as rebels calling themselves the United Front for Change tried to seize control of N’Djamena back in April. Although the coup failed, hundreds were left dead, as the rebels were driven east into Sudan, where it was alleged they were receiving backing from Khartoum. Sound familiar? While troops loyal to Deby were busy countering the UFC’s offensive, the Sudanese Janjaweed, who we’ve all come to know and loath, used the disarray to their advantage, pushing ever deeper into Chad’s eastern desert. Aid workers based in Abeche, and administrating over a large part of the Darfur IDP population, had little choice but to evacuate, as the security situation collapsed around them. A state of emergency now exists in the volatile border region and tanks are a common site on the streets of N’Djamena. Chad, for the time being, is most definitely suitable only to those well versed in central African discord. Perhaps a beach holiday in Mombassa may be a better option.
In the last ten years, Maoist insurgents in Nepal have left 12,000 people dead and over 100,000 displaced as they’ve fought for a communist republic, mugging tourists and murdering policemen as they went. Ranked among the poorest countries in the world, Nepal is a ripe picking ground for the Maoists, who found they had widespread support from the peasants in the fields; so visitors to this most scenic of places have all too often found themselves handing over sums of money and expensive items, such as cameras and phones, to help fund these mountain folks’ cause. Resistance is not taken lightly. In January 2006, the Nepalese town of Tansen was attacked by the rebels and 20 people killed, but since then peace talks have made considerable ground and the days of the Maoists destroying roads and bridges is alledgedly over; for the time being at least. However, they’re still heavily armed and refusing to lay down their Kalashnikovs, so a cautious step is still advised. Notwithstanding the political environment, if the Maoists don’t get you, the altitude has teeth and is a fickle beast.
Officially the poorest nation in the Americas, Haiti is a poverty-stricken, barren dustbowl, marred by violence. A trip to Port Au Prince can be a trouble free experience for the Saga city-breaker, who’s just looking for a voodoo doll souvenir to take back to the cruise ship. But an evening stroll through Cite Soleil, Haiti’s largest and most notorious slum, is a different prospect entirely – probably just your cup of tea if you’re yearning for a burning tyre necklace or double-tap to the back of the head. Our advice is don’t even think about it unless you’re either tucked safely inside a UN APC, or best drinking buddies with the Cite’s ruling class – whoever they may be on any given day. In 2004, when Jean-Bertrand Aristide was booted out of his presidency the second time around, violence erupted, resulting in 8000 killings and 35,000 rapes (Lancet Report). Following that promising start, Haiti has gone downhill from there. Since May 2006, newly elected President, Jacques-Edouard Alexis has faced the unenviable task of leading Haiti out of the chaos. We wish him luck.
Resting down there at the south-eastern end of the Axis of Evil, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is doing a great job of winding up the United States. A test missile launch in July provoked widespread condemnation, but Kim Jong-Il just stuck two fingers up at the rest of the world and went on to detonate a nuclear device in October. Sanctions were imposed as a result but this just brought stubborn defiance from Pyongyang, where they’re now saying that unless the sanctions are lifted, the nuclear deterrent programme will continue. It’s hard to see how this sabre-rattling stalemate is going to play out, but one thing’s for sure; the hapless citizens of Seoul are sitting pretty, like ducks in a row, with DPRK artillery pointing their way, and are getting real twitchy just praying that George Dubbya doesn’t draw on his wealth of experience in global diplomacy and make a move. Travellers are allowed into the DPRK, with a permit of course, but they’re not going anywhere on their own. Expect a very polite shadow everywhere you go instructing you to only photograph street corners, billboards and bus stops.
Horn of Africa
We’re very generous folks, here at Polo’s Bastards, so we’re going to give you three for the price of one, with Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia. Hell, let’s throw in Sudan for good measure, too! The fact is it’s pretty hard to go anywhere on Africa’s great horn without getting caught up in some god-forsaken, stinking hole with the bullets flying.
All looked good for the folks of Eritrea, when they were awarded independence from Ethiopia in 1993, but some kid on work experience at the local cartographer’s office, in Addis Ababa, had his map upside down and got the border demarcation all wrong. It’s been tense up there ever since. In the southeast of Ethiopia, the disputed territory of Ogaden has been the cause of some serious squabbling too. There’s a non-aggression pact in place now, though, between Ethiopia and Somalia, but if you go there, you’ll probably die of thirst anyway.
Elsewhere on the Horn… In the south, the Somalis are shooting anything in a white skin, as Mogadishu swings back and forth between mild anarchy and all-out-lawlessness, and now the Ethiopians are throwing their weight around in towns such as Galkayo and Beledweyne too. In the north, the Eritreans are allegedly harbouring and training anti-Khartoum rebels, while they themselves are warding off a Sudanese plot to assassinate their own President in Asmara. All in all, the horn is a tense place to be right now. If you do decide to throw caution to the wind and fly down there, keep smiling and watch your back.
Central African Republic
Not a nice place to be if you still have some growing to do; the C.A.R. has a reputation for trafficking in children; sold into a life of forced labour, domestic servitude and sexual exploitation. For the adults, life isn’t much better, as the country has pretty much been a boiling pot of instability for all of its 47 years of independence. Coup has followed coup, and today armed militia roam the forested countryside with impunity, so hats off to Francois Bozize for taking the presidential stand in 2005, probably knowing that his will eventually be an unsavoury demise if past experiences are anything to go by. He was a coup leader himself, so he should understand better than anyone. Britain’s foreign office warns against all travel to the country, even suggesting that military escorts guarantee no safety. A foreigner can rest assured, however, that he or she will stand out in a crowd and draw plenty of attention. Just bear in mind that it may not be a good thing.
The relationship between Lebanon and Israel has never been affable and gracious, but July 2006 saw the shit really hit the fan, when Hezbollah thought it would be cool to kidnap a couple of Israeli soldiers. Israel unleashed hell on Hezbollah, taking out any man, woman or child that was standing in the wrong place at the wrong time; polarising global opinion into those that saw Hezbollah as suicide bombing terrorists, and those that saw them as beleaguered country men, suffering at the hands of Israeli oppression. Whatever side of the fence you stand on, the unexploded ordnance that still litters the Lebanese countryside isn’t fussy and will remove your legs without discussion, and probably the rest of your flimsy body too. In Beirut, you’re equally vulnerable, as western interests are still at considerable risk of retaliatory bomb strikes. Lebanese Industry Minister, Pierre Gemayel, was assassinated last month (21st November), so don’t think the Middle East peace process is making ground just yet.
So here’s to 2007 and all it brings, and we wish you well in your forthcoming adventures. May the eyes in the back of your head be keen, your friends genuine and your enemies slow witted. As you scale breathless mountains and grumbling volcanoes; tread dusty back roads and vanishing point interstates, please remember to keep an open mind with a healthy sense of paranoia. And if you find yourself in the midst of the headlines as they’re being written, we’d like to hear about it. Godspeed and happy New Year.
Author – Lee Ridley
Photography – Sean Rorison, Lee Ridley, Lightstalker, Flipflop, David Astley and Fergus Cunningham.