– Guest post –
Unchartered Backpacker’s 5 Extreme Travel Destinations
Hey I’m Stephen Gollan, a travel hardened extreme backpacker who has been traveling around the world for the past nine years.
After visiting over 80 countries and still on the road, I find myself more drawn to the extreme destinations where I can sip green tea in a Kabul bazaar or ride motorbikes across the spine of the Himalayas instead of staying in a beach resort or going on a cruise. Fond of tribes (who have often tattooed me) and lost cultures, I am always searching the corners of the world for the unknown. My experiences traveling have led me on a lifelong journey of adventure, and now to helping others plan their exciting travels as well!
Check out my new travel website www.unchartedbackpacker.com and follow some of my ongoing adventures of travel tattoos, living in war zones, and traveling to far flung destinations of the world.
Afghanistan is where dreams come true for people like me. It’s a land of untouched tribes with unique cultures, exotic bazaars filled with goods from around the continent, and the constant thrill of being the only foreigner there: even after a month, I never saw another backpacker. The Afghan people are also an amazing bunch. Proud of their land and hospitality, the people will make every day in this country special. For a country like Afghanistan there is no written, up-to-date guide book, so the path you take is decided by you and you only.
I decided to only take public transport through Afghanistan during my time there, as I decided it would be a better way to see more of the country. Entering northern Afghanistan over Uzbekistan’s friendship bridge, I stayed in Mazar E Sharif for a few days where I met some of the most amazing Afghan people. They took me to the Buddhist temples of Samangan and the ancient city Balkh that was built by Alexander the Great. From the northern part of the country, I took the local bus across the Salang pass over to Kabul and the Panjshir valley. In the East I visited Harat (which is really more like Iran than Afghanistan).
My favourite experience in Afghanistan would have to be kite flying in Herat, the sky turning into a battlefield every evening, a kaleidoscope of colours and shapes against the desert backdrop. I lost seven kites that day, each time a gang of children running to retrieve it. Another experience I’ll never forget is driving an old, beat up car through the Panjshir valley. The Panjshir is absolutely gorgeous (but incredibly off limits). After hours of convincing the Afghan army to let me in, I got the pleasure of visiting minority villages made up of mud and played around on some old soviet tanks.
Libya has been off limits to foreigners for the past 40 years. After Libya’s revolution a few lucky travelers (including me!) were able to get across its borders. Libya is a treasure trove of history and culture that will one day make it a top tourist destination in North Africa. Think unspoiled Roman cities dotting a picture-perfect coast line of white beaches and turquoise waters. Head inland and find some of the Sahara’s most remote and stunning scenery. Libya also is home to some of North Africa’s most interesting cities. Known as the “Pearl of the Mediterranean”, Tripoli has exotic medinas (markets) sprawling over Ottoman architecture and ancient Roman agoras that have been converted into restaurants and Nargile cafes.
Hired to work in Libya setting up an English school, I was given the opportunity to travel freely throughout the country –a right that most travelers are not given. I was lucky enough to visit the ancient Roman cities of Sabratha and Leptis Magna. These sites are not far from Tripoli, where I was living. During my five month stay I also made it to Jebel Nafusa and its capitol, Yefren, the heartland of Berber culture. My most fond memory, however, is the time I spent in the lost Saharan city of Ghadames. Ghadames has not seen many tourists for the past 40 years, so it was a real honour to get lost within the white-walled city. Nearby to Ghadames stumbled upon a Libyan Desert rally, where I got to fly cars over huge sand dunes!
My favourite experience in Libya was the friendships I made there. Libyan people are a special bunch who are fiercely proud of their culture. If you visit here, don’t be surprised if you spend most of your time staying with a local family who presents you with some of the most delicious food ever. The best part of taking road trips to Roman cities and lost desert oases was sharing them with my Libyan friends. We often stopped at a beach or sand dune and broke out the BBQ equipment, laughing over some good food and crazy stories.
Ethiopia is a bit tamer compared to my previous choices, but still only for the initiated and experienced backpacker. Home to some of the most remote known tribes in the world, open any National Geographic or Lonely Planet magazine and you will be flashed with images of this incredible country. Head to Ethiopia’s north and see some of Africa’s greatest cultural and historic treasures: the stone carved churches of Lalibela and the megalithic sized obelisks in Axum are both found here. Ethiopia’s tribal and historic cultures can be a bit intense, but it’s the landscape that travelers will rave about. Ethiopia is home to the hottest desert in the world, ancient forests, baboon inhabited mountains and African savannahs rich with wildlife. With so much to see, it’s worth the trials and tribulations of navigating this fascinating country.
After spending almost two months in Ethiopia my best tip is to come prepared. Ethiopia is a tough destination. The roads are horrendous and food consists of boiled goat with runny chickpeas. Brave past all this, though, and you will be greatly rewarded by this extreme travel destination! After landing in Addis Abada, Ethiopia’s capitol, I looped my way through the norther historic circuit by local mini bus before making a very rough and remote trip the Lower Omo valley in the south. Here I witnessed tribal cultures that were thought to have been lost long ago. Traveling the north and then the south gives good diversity to a trip here, allowing you to take in every aspect Ethiopia offers. However, Ethiopia is big, so make sure you have the time to commit to seeing it all.
While in the Lower Omo valley, I attended a bull jumping ceremony. This ceremony initiates a child into manhood by running across the backs of twenty bulls. The ceremony really heats up in the evening with a deafening symphony of horns and drums before the jumping begins. This tribal experience was definitely unique and left me with a whole new outlook on what lies out in the hidden corners of the world. In the North, I had to free-climb up a hundred foot wall with no security or ropes in order to reach one the spectacular stone-carved churches. Not an experience for the faint hearted!
Why Pakistan, another country in which tourism is just a murmur of the past? Displaying immense diversity, Pakistan is ready to become a top backpacking destination. Travel this magical land and see its geographical changes from impossibly high Himalayan peaks to scorching hot deserts and hidden valleys, and uncover lost tribes. If you’re still not convinced, then be prepared to be amazed because Pakistan also plays host to some of Asia’s greatest food. A smorgasbord of traditional fare and diverse ingredients, Foodies will go insane here. Pakistan is a real gem to be discovered by those willing to give it a chance.
Entering Pakistan through China was a frustrating experience. China loves to surprise travellers with festivals that close borders down. But be patient, and you can cross the same trading borders that Marco Polo once used.
Pakistan’s north is like no other. Small tribes in Chitral, whose genes trace back to Alexander the Great’s armies, offer home stays for tourists, which I highly recommend. After staying in Chitral and crossing the Hunza and Passu Valleys, I stayed with a family in Peshawar and spent my days strolling the streets of Islamabad and Lahore.
Pakistan is a land of incredible experiences. The best part was staying with local families who loved to show me their ways of life. My favourite memory from Pakistan is hiking with Wakhi sheep herders to the top of the Pamirs to see glaciers and remote villages. In Chitral, staying with the Kalash people -who are decedents of Greeks -showed me an entirely different aspect to the diversity of Pakistan. These people believe in ancient Greek gods and ferment their own wine deep within the hidden valleys. My friends in Peshawar gave me an experience of a lifetime. While staying with them, they snuck me into the Khyber Pass and toured me through the smuggler’s bazaar, where arms and drugs change hands openly.
Iraq is often the face of terror and horror, but past the media and find that there are safe corners of this country even now. Iraqi Kurdistan is in the grip of destruction, fighting for its independence and security from the neighboring terrorist state. Iraq, apart from the turmoil, has some of our world’s oldest and treasured historic sites. Many are being destroyed in the fighting, but enter Kurdistan and see the amazing places being protected.
Iraq’s landscape is an explorer’s dream. Its deep mountain valleys have fairy-tale like castles strewn atop massive hills, all hidden from the wars raging in the east. Iraq is a place where explorers make their names – why not try to join them.
After leaving Iran, I entered Kurdistan-Iraq through the city of Erbil. Erbil is a modern city with many museums worth seeing. Leaving Erbil en route to Dohuk, I witnessed the “real” Iraq in a shared taxi through Kirkuk and Mosul. Iraq has so much potential- driving through the desert we passed countless villages with obvious historic ruins nearby that nobody knew anything about or payed any attention to. From Dohuk, I ventured into Amadiya the place where I fell in love with this country. Amadiya could inspire fairy tales. It’s a castle like town atop a hill surrounded by some of the most dramatic mountain scenery I have seen. Cobble stone streets are lined with peaceful people who are both wary and fascinated by your presence among them. Walk these streets and stay for some time soaking up the scenery and forget you are in the country presented as the heart of terror. Here, you are safe.
Just making it to Iraq is an experience in itself, but his country will keep you in awe every moment. Smoking Nargile with the locals in a coffee shop high above the clouds in Amadiya is what I dream about while back home. This country has a sad past and present, but one day peace will find its way here and everyone will be able to experience Iraq’s incredible people and their generous hospitality.
Note from @Pohtecktoes:
I don’t usually do guest posts, but I really love what this buddy of mine is doing. We met on the road in Myanmar and I’m still following his awesome adventures! If you like to see more from the Uncharted Backpacker, do check out the blog and the rest of his awesome pictures. :)