Choosing a country from the ‘Axis of Evil’ might not sound like the best way to start a relaxing vacation, but surely it’s one way to have an adventure you’ll never forget.
It was US President George W. Bush who designated Iran, Iraq, and North Korea as three evil nations in his State of the Union Speech in 2002. All three were accused of developing weapons of mass destruction for their “terrorist allies.” (Turns out that wasn’t entirely true.)
Since then, however, the Saddame Hussein regime in Iraq was overthrown, the government in Iran has softened somewhat, and North Korea has started granting visas to Americans. Since North Korea’s visa back-flip in 2010, it has been possible to enjoy a vacation in all three of the countries.
So, if you’ve got the travel bug and are up for some adventure, here’s our guide to vacations inside the former “Axis of Evil.”
While Iran is seen by some in the West as a country full of crazy fundamentalists hell-bent on America’s nuclear destruction, the reality you’ll see inside the countrycouldn’t be further from the truth.When Bush named the country as part of the axis, it actuallycame as a surprise to some observers.
The fact is, the majority of the Iranian public love Westerners — Americans in particular — making Iran one of the safest countries on our list even for female travellers. Opinion polls show the majority of Iranians hold a favourable opinion of Americans, making Iran second only to Israel as the most supportive population in the Middle East.
To travel as a Westerner is to be routinely stopped on the street and welcomed by curious and generous Iranians. When I was there last summer I was constantly offered with cold drinks, invited to parties, and given free tours by locals.
There is a ton to see there: the massive shrine of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in Tehran, cheap ski resorts in the Alborz mountains north of the city, ancient clay-baked mosques in Kashan, the stunning central square of Isfahan, the Tatooine-like ruins of Na’in, and the ancient ruins of Persepolis near Shiraz.
While Western sanctions mean you can’t use your Visa or MasterCard in the country, you won’t have to take much cash. All expenses– including transport, food, and accommodation — amounted to less than $US200 for my 11-day trip last year.
Inexpensive, air conditioned buses run frequently between most cities, and a full falafel sandwich will often only set you back 25 cents. There’s amazing rosewater ice cream almost everywhere in summer for about 10 cents a cone.
Return flights to Tehran from mainland Europe can be found for $US200-to-400.
Iran is safe for female travellers. Iranian women dress fashionably, and the level of respect on the streets could be considered high even by Western standards. However, it is mandatory to wear a headscarf in public at all times. Headscarves are skimpy, colourful, and barely attached in Tehran, but in regional areas more conservative coverings are the norm.
Gay travellers should be aware that homosexual sex is punishable by death for Iranian citizens. Deportation is probably the very best you can hope for if authorities somehow discover you. Discretion is highly advised, and as far as we can tell, no foreigners have run into trouble with this.
Iranian-Americans should be aware that the country does not recognise dual citizenship and will likely treat you as an Iranian if you end up in trouble. The country’s hardline judicial system currently has at least four Iranian Americans imprisoned —three journalistsand apastor.
While many countries have representation in Tehran, US consular services are conducted through the Swiss Embassy. The UK is still in the process of opening its embassy.
While Iran is the perfect place for backpackers to explore independently on the cheap, North Korea is anything but. The country is intensely secretive, and the only real way in is an organised tour which will be strictly controlled by the North Korean government.
While the threat of any violence is low, you should know the government has arrested at least three Americans for suspected subversive activity. Also, be aware that most of the money you pay for your tour will likely end up in the hands of one of the worst human rights abusers in the world today, the North Korean government.
The regime is accused of running Nazi-style labour camps rife with rape, murder, and starvation. Human Rights Watch recently released a video with first-hand accounts and drawings painting a horrific picture of brutal violence.
Yet despite this, thousands of tourists, mostly from China, travel to North Korea every year for a peek inside the clandestine country. One guide estimates that 4,000 non-Chinese tourists tourists visit North Korea annually.
Touring North Korea must be one of the most uniquely bizarre travel experiences in the world. Any time you’re out of your hotel, you’ll be accompanied by at least two government minders who will serve as guides (two so they can keep an eye on you, and each other).
As Anna Fifield of The Washington Post writes, “It’s such a thrill to get an elusive visa and see this closed society with your own eyes, yet so maddening when you realise that you’re moving through a kind of real-life ‘Truman Show.'”
While in the country, you will see only what the North Korean government wants you to see, so the prison camps and more poverty stricken areas are likely to be off-limits. You will also be denied any chance to speak with any “normal” North Koreans not vetted by the government.
You can, however, say hello as if you pass North Koreans on the street and maybe even share a few beers with your guides. But that’s about as far as any cultural exchange will go.
What will perhaps strike you most in North Korea is the cult of personality surrounding its former leaders Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il.
“Wherever possible, the magnificence of the Kims, especially KIS [Kim Il Sung], was emphasised. Busts, statues, murals, and slogans were everywhere,” North Korean scholar and tourist Robert Kelly writes.
“At a bowling alley, the ball and pins which KIS bowled on the facility’s opening were kept under glass at the entrance, surrounded by flowers, with photos and a dedicatory statement from KIS inscribed on the wall,” he wrote.
You will learn of Kim Il Sung’s personal guidance of the construction of Pyongyang’s metro, and you’ll be told he wrote 18,300 books. You may even be advised against crumpling any newspaper that has his image.
Most Western tourists to the country appear to end up in one particular hotel in the country’s capital, Pyongyang. The quirky hotel, the Yanggakdo International, is situated on slither of land in the Taedong river. It is known as the “Alcatraz of Fun” by government guides and has4 out of 5 stars on Trip Advisor.
Tourists are free to explore the small island on foot; however, Lonely Planet is careful to point out that you shouldn’t attempt to cross the bridge under any circumstances.
The hotel has a karaoke lounge, a bowling alley, a casino with a foreigners-only disco, and a secret fifth floor which does not appear on the elevator buttons (But if you’re brave, you can go to the fourth floor and take the stairs.)
Despite being 47 stories high with a revolving restaurant at the top floor, The Washington Post reports that, “like the thousand or so rooms, the restaurant is mostly empty, all of it an elaborate show of prosperity that doesn’t exist.”
Americans have been able to visit the country since 2010, and rumours of restrictions on Israeli or Jewish travellers are false. Almost all travellers will require a visa, which will be issued after a trip has been booked, approved, and paid for.
Be aware that while visas are often given late they are rarely denied, and if you arrange it beforehand, you can even pick one up in 20 minutes through the North Korean embassy in London.
Tours in North Korea cost $US200-$400 a day including accommodation, meals, and transport from China. Americans will probably have to pay towards the higher end of that scale because the North Koreans have banned Americans from some forms of travel. A return flight from the US to China can be snatched for as low as $US800.
In case of any emergency, the Swedish Embassy in Pyongyang has taken charge of consular services for Canadian, American, Australian, and Nordic travellers. Also take note that certain items are banned; leaving a copy of the Bible with his contact details in a bathroom got one American tourist15 years in a North Korean prison camp.
Rounding out our “Axis of Evil” trifecta isIraq, probably one of the most dangerous countries in the world to visit. The emergence of the militant group known as the Islamic State, or ISIS, has shattered thestability that parts of the country had previously been enjoying.
For travellers this means most of the country — birthplace of many of the planet’s oldest civilizations and most recent conflicts — is entirely off limits.
Iraq is home to the remains of Babylon, the ruins of Hatra, the Tal Afar fortress, the The Great Mosque of Samarra, and the Al-Shaheed Monument and Swords of Qādisīyah in Baghdad. But to visit any of these sites now is to risk kidnapping, murder, gunfire, and terrorist attacks.
The safer region of Kurdistan, however, still has many sites to offer. The region is semi-autonomous, and with minimal violence in recent years it has experienced massive economic development with high levels of foreign investment, infrastructure development, and tourism. Some areas are highly Westernized.
In Kurdistan there’s the towering ancient citadel of Erbil, the mountaintop settlement of Amadiya, and the plunging gorges, waterfalls, and snow capped peaks of the Zagros Mountains.
There’s also the memorial to Saddam Hussein’s gassing of the Kurds in Halabja, the Amna Suraka museum which documents Hussein’s brutality, and the Sulaimani Museum, the second largest history museum in the country.
While tourist visas to other areas of Iraq are currently suspended, the Kurds will grant a free 15-day visa on arrival to citizens of the US, the UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Turkey, and many EU member states.
Return flights from Turkey to Erbil range from $US300-$500. You can fly into Istanbul in Turkey from most major centres in Europe for $US150-$200 return.
While it always pays to know where you are, you’re at little risk of accidentally venturing outside of the Kurdish safe region — the region’s borders are tightly controlled. Still, it’s advisable to stay away from the Turkish border and the city of Kirkuk.
Take extreme care if you’re hiking in the mountains near the Iranian border. In 2009 three American hikers wandered too close to the border and were detained and accused of spying by Iran.
The woman in the group was released after 14 months, but the two men weren’t freed for more than two years.