It’s an impossible question for a travel enthusiast really, but given that most countries I have visited are from anything between a coupe of days and a month, I will have to go for China, the place I’ve made my home for 8 years. Anyone who’s lived here any amount of time knows well the downsides of the country, but stepping back and thinking about it, China is more of a continent than a country, with an incredible amount of things to do and experience.
My personal favourite things about China are getting away from the cities, which can be very samey, into the countryside, where people can’t even be sure if you’re a foreigner of just an ethnic minority they’ve not heard of! I love the countryside life of Shaanxi province which we visit on the China Revolutionary Tour, as well as China’s crazy urban side, like the ghost city of Ordos. Which other country just builds a massive, new city in the desert and grasslands – perfect for urban exploration – where there’s not even many people living?
And for me the borderlands of China offer an incredible mix of scenery, people and culture. From the borders with Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Pakistan in the far west region of Xinjiang, to the Tibetan border with Nepal just down from Mt Everest, the southwestern frontier with Vietnam, Laos and Myanmar, and of course the long border with North Korea where we have our annual road trip, you could spend a lifetime in this country and not run out of travel destinations!
Whilst only being recognized by four countries, I class Abkhazia as a country due to its unique culture, people and history, as well as its sometimes difficult border crossing. The three things I love about Abkhazia are its people, its edginess and its scenery. The people of Abkhazia have suffered countless horrors and war from the time of the Tsar up until 2008, yet they still retain their friendly customs and hospitality. The first time I visited Abkhazia, I attended a Victory Day parade in its largely lawless border region. After filming military equipment and troops, I was promptly arrested by the local FSB, at first fearing the worst, the men soon realised I wasn’t up to no good and welcomed me as a guest, initiating a party which lasted for hours, with an endless supply of Vodka, wine and local food. An incident which was at first lethal turned into one of best forms of hospitality I’ve ever experienced. The scenery in Abkhazia has to be seen to be believed, from its majestic mountains, lush jungle and tropical beaches, it never fails to amaze, this was the destination of choice for the top dogs of the USSR back in the day. This scenery is contrasted by the countries edginess, in the form of bombed and bullet-riddled buildings and abandoned structures, it’s also the only place in the world that I have seen a decaying Lenin statue surrounded by palm trees and tropical plants, as a result, Abkhazia is a photographers’ dream.
Kazakhstan. Not actually the home to Borat, contrary to popular belief, Kazakhstan is however home to lots of pretty cool stuff. There’s Baikonur Cosmodrome, the Aral Sea, the Valley of the Balls, petroglyphs, ancient cities, a lake that is half salt and half fresh water (literally there’s a line in the middle and you can see it), Almaty – the cosmopolitan centre of Central Asia, and Astana – the fake capital built in the middle of the desert, complete with absurd buildings and some of the harshest living conditions. There are also plenty of “Borat villages” in between all of these!