Crossing into Bramleystan - A lesson in Hostile Environments

This article was originally published on Verge Magazine Issue 19, Volume 2 (paywall) on July 31st 2019.

The barrel of a 9mm pistol twitched infront of Rupski’s nose. He was kneeling, his hands raised in limp terror above his head. Large drops of rain crashed onto his face, streaming down onto the soggy grass below, where his knees had begun to sink.

I looked on helplessly, half the cells in my body screaming “fight”, the other half “flight”. But I could do neither; two militiamen stood over me, rifles locked and loaded. How did it go so wrong? It should have been simple: three UN personnel on a daytime assignment, crossing a sleepy border into the little-known state of Bramleystan.

Rupski was our ‘fixer’; the guy that got us in, kept us safe and, most importantly, got us out again. In a few moments, he would be dead, along with any chance of us escaping this godforsaken nation, located near Basingstoke, England, off junction 6 of the M3.

This terrifying experience was, in fact, part of a course designed to prepare me for travelling to places where scenarios like this might play out for real. Places like Chad, in central Africa, where I would soon be travelling for a story I was writing.

Like all prudent travellers, I had begun my preparations with Google. The top result for “Chad safety” was the UK Foreign Office website. A colour-coded map of Chad indicated areas of the country that were safe. There were none. Large swathes of red and orange advised against “all travel” or “all but essential travel”. Terrorist attacks in the capital, N’Djamena, were “highly likely” and the kidnap of Westerners “a very real threat”. I considered myself an adventurous traveller, but not that adventurous.

How would I – an acutely affable Brit – survive there? At home, I relied on smiles and handshakes in place of attitude and bravado. In Chad, it was easy to imagine the steps between a misplaced smile and a shallow grave. I desperately needed to transform into Mr. hard-as-nails-take-no-shit-from-nobody. And I needed to do it quickly.

The answer was Hazardous Environment Training. I settled on a three-day course organised by HASP Training, a company established by ex-military man Rupert Godesen.

After spending years training staff for the BBC, Rupert decided to open his course to the public in 2016. Designed for war reporters, aid workers and energy sector employees, the course teaches essentials like bribes, checkpoints and teamwork – information useful to anyone travelling to a dangerous location.

There were many ways to describe such a place, but a hostile environment was not one of them.

In the bar of the Basingstoke Country Hotel, where the course was to take place, I sank into a marshmallow-soft leather sofa with a packet of salted crisps. 90’s pop rattled from the speakers. There were many ways to describe such a place, but a hostile environment was not one of them. I was anxious nonetheless; perhaps the plan was to bundle me into the back of a van and test my resilience to waterboarding.

A figure bounded into the bar, gesturing excitedly “You must be Aram!” Rupert was tall, fair haired and had a warm smile. His t-shirt said ‘Outdoorsy’. Not exactly the cold, battle-scarred hard-man I had expected. Could he really provide me with the necessary transformation?

The following morning class commenced in a small, air-conditioned conference room. I sat opposite Luke, a young British journalist who was heading to war-torn eastern Ukraine. Next to him was Inga, an Icelander being deployed to Turkey by the UN refugee agency. Rupert stood in front of a projector screen flanked by two large war-zone images.

After introductions, we stepped into the break room. Alongside the coffee and biscuits, was an alarmingly incongruous assortment of firearms and explosives. From pistols to sniper rifles, tank mines to Coke bottle IEDs, there was enough firepower to take out the entire hotel.

I lifted a grenade and felt a pulse of excitement at its substantial weight. “They are replicas. For training purposes.” Rupert said, gently stirring his coffee. “Of course” I replied, placing the grenade back on the table, mildly disappointed that we were in no danger at all.

Over the course of the day we covered a myriad of topics, including: trip preparation “know your destination!”; teamwork “always stay together!”; avoiding confrontation “stall, de-escalate and wait for a way out”; and vehicle safety “Check every inch of your car, and don’t forget the boot!”

By day two, it was time for checkpoints and bribes. This was where I would escape my gentlemanly cocoon, channel my inner warrior and learn the secret to surviving situations in which my chummy little nice guy wouldn’t stand a chance.

Rupert began calmly: “If there is one thing I want you to remember, it’s that the best way to smooth the path ahead is by being a nice guy.”

Wait, what?

Rupert continued: “As Westerners, we can do anything. Learn the piano, another language, or get a doctorate.” By contrast, he explained, we might come up against people without hope of such opportunities. “They might decide to hold you at a checkpoint for 10 hours, simply because they can. They are thinking: You’ve come to my country on a jolly. Well fuck you, I live here and it’s shit.”

I wasn’t sure what to make of this. I’d come to learn how to survive in a country where imagining your own demise in 10 different ways was as simple as loading the first page of Google. Yet here I was being told the secret to survival was to be myself? It felt like going to a garage with a puncture and being told that tyres work best without air.

This was especially important, we were told, when bribing. “You can’t just rock up to a guard and wave money in his face.” Rupert said. “You need to maintain his dignity. Maybe he wants a cigarette. Or, maybe he hasn’t been paid in months and has a family to feed.”

“He lost his job for being a prick.”

Rupert recounted the story of a fixer working in Beirut. He drove through the same checkpoint every day. He knew the drill: “yes, I need a new permit, but can I buy a pass for today?” he would say, as he handed over his passport with a few dollars tucked inside. One day he arrived at the checkpoint furious after an argument with his wife. “There’s your fucking money, now open the gate!” he snarled. Guns were cocked and he was dragged from the car, beaten and stripped. The car was torn apart. The next day he was fired. “He lost his job for being a prick.” Rupert concluded.

As the day came to a close, Rupert had an announcement. “Tomorrow is the scenario. You will be heading into Bramleystan to carry out reconnaissance for the UN. Your fixer, Rupski, will take you to meet some locals. Meet him here at 9am.”

We found Rupski in the hotel’s carpark, hunched under his car’s bonnet. “Problems! Problems!” he said. “But, the everything’s fine.” Was this our first test? Rupert’s warnings cycled through my head, but our search of the car turned up nothing, so we set of for the fictional border with Bramleystan.

A large wire gate stood between us and an irritable looking man with a rifle. He waved us through and directed us to pull over with the barrel of the rifle. As he began poking around the car it suddenly dawned on me; we had forgotten to check the boot.

“What is this?!” he said waving some high-calibre ammunition over the rear seats. “Not mine, maybe these guys know?” Rupski chirped. We stared at him in disbelief. But, of course he betrayed us, that was lesson number one. Eventually a cash bribe got us out of trouble and we continued on to the location of our fictional rendezvous: an isolated cabin in the woods.

We waited inside. “I will go find them.” Rupski said, wondering out the door. We glanced anxiously at each other. Suddenly a man in camo gear slammed the door shut and banged a pistol onto the table in front of us. A younger man with machine gun stood behind him.

“I am Andy. You have money?” Pistol man said in a jovial tone, “I have souvenirs. Come, I show you.”

“We have to wait for Rupski.” Luke said, hesitantly.

“Rupski come later. There is problem?” Andy asked. A third man arrived, our border guard from earlier, wearing a different jacket, carrying a bigger gun. We decided it was best not to disagree.

A bloodied uniform hung by the entrance to a small military tent in the middle of a field. “It didn’t go so well for him!” Andy smirked. Inside lay a selection of explosive ordnance. “Souvenirs! How much you want?” said Andy, expectantly.

Refusing flat-out seemed unwise. Rupert’s advice was to stall and de-escalate. “They look nice.” I said, nervously summoning the affable Brit I had been expecting to suppress, “let me speak to my bosses, we’ll come back.”

“I found you!” came a voice from the distance. It was Rupski. Was this the end? Relief washed over me, perhaps I would survive Chad afterall.

“You owe me money!” Andy screamed at Rupski. It wasn’t the end.

“Andy, we can pay you what he owes later.” Inga offered in desperation. Rupski was on his knees now. “Take them away!” Andy barked. The two men quickly herded us across the field. Then a shot rang out.

Andy appeared with a thunderous glare that left us in no doubt: the limits of nice had been reached. There was no talking our way out of this. We were hostages.

Then came a familiar voice: “Well done guys!” Rupert was standing behind us, brushing the wet grass from his trousers. This time, it really was over. “You did great. Still together and still alive. Surviving kidnap? That’s something entirely different.”

Despite appearances, we had in fact accomplished our objectives. “There was one group,” Rupert recalled, “all three guys were shot for being hot-headed and the girls… well, you know.” Merely being kidnapped? That was success.

It was a lot to take in. I had come to the course hoping to survive by becoming someone I wasn’t. In the process I had discovered that the person I wanted to be would have ended up dead. Empathy had proven a far more potent force than arrogance and aggression.

In my ignorance, I had believed that being a nice guy was only possible when you had the rule of law to back you up. Yet the very opposite is true. Without the protection of the state the stakes are much higher. Losing your composure at a checkpoint in Chad risks far more than losing it at a toll booth on the M6.

Ultimately, it turns out that the best tool we have when travelling to dangerous places is an ability to be human. It’s a tool I had been carrying all along, and one I was now ready to use, wherever my travels take me.

Belgrade's theatre of broken dreams

This is an excerpt from Meet the man who built Belgrade’s theatre of broken dreams, where the Yugoslav ideal lived and died which was published on The Calvert Journal in June 2019.

Ljubiša Ristić was once the daring star of Yugoslav theatre. Then the state he had dedicated his life and art to collapsed into bloodshed. This is the story of how loyalty to a political ideal ruined a cultural icon.

Among the dilapidated structures of an old industrial district in Belgrade is a crumbling, 19th-century factory. The building, once Yugoslavia’s largest sugar refinery, stands proudly even as parts of its roof succumb to gravity and its red-brick walls gently bow in sympathy. One section of the building, however, remains intact: windows glazed, roof sealed, brickwork perpendicular. In winter, a small steel chimney emits a thin trail of smoke.

In fact, this 50-metre stretch of The Sugar Factory houses a 450-seat avant-garde theatre, as well as a ballet hall, restaurant, bar, greenhouse, and a giant birdcage full of brightly-coloured parakeets. Its palatial spaces and cosy corners blend elements of an ancient temple with a Bond villain’s lair: faux-Roman columns stand by glittering Egyptian arches; murals depict characters from Eastern mythology meeting those from European classics; a grand piano rests on a marble floor under a ceiling of shimmering LED stars, next to a wall of tube televisions.

This is the eponymous home of KPGT, a theatre troupe led by enigmatic director Ljubiša Ristić. Now 72, he is energetic, articulate, and full of charisma. His presence fills the room with an air of unpretentious knowing: a man who has seen it all, remembered every detail, and continued unfazed. In the days when Belgrade was the capital of Yugoslavia, Ristić and KPGT were an international sensation. Today, the director is a controversial character in Serbia and the theatre lies mostly quiet, the restaurant’s ovens cold, the stage empty.

Ristić’s story is one of a cultural icon caught up in a destructive battle for power. His biography maps the rise and collapse of Yugoslavia itself, with all the idealism, compromise, and brutality that ultimately entailed. And, after two decades struggling to survive, there are signs that the story of this man and his theatre might not be over just yet.

Yugoslavia was birthed in the Partisan struggle against Nazi occupation, led by Josip Broz Tito. After the war, Tito united six nation states (Croatia, Slovenia, Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Macedonia), along with two autonomous regions (Vojvodina and Kosovo), into a centralised communist republic, promoting “Brotherhood and Unity” while forcefully suppressing nationalist sentiment.

Ristić’s biography maps the rise and collapse of Yugoslavia itself, with all the idealism, compromise, and brutality that ultimately entailed

As the post-war state developed into a global force, prospering in a neutral position between the Cold War superpowers, Ristić, the son of prominent wartime partisans, was growing up in Pristina, Kosovo. Taking after his parents, Ristić was politically minded and a staunch supporter of the federalism of the communist state. He joined the ruling party, the League of Communists, in 1962, aged 16. Six years later, he played a significant role in the 1968 student protest movement, opposing Titoist reforms that he felt betrayed the country’s roots. He left the party in 1971, unable to accept its continued move toward the political centre, which had seen significant powers devolved to Yugoslavia’s individual states, something Ristić feared would lead to a rise in nationalism. Away from politics, Ristić completed his degree at the Belgrade Academy of Theatre, and by the mid-70s was a rising star of stage direction.

When nationalist movements indeed began to take hold across the federation, the director saw an opportunity to promote unity through culture. In 1977, he formed a theatre troupe with Croatian choreographer Nada Kokotović, Slovenian playwright Dušan Jovanović, and Croatian (now Hollywood) actor Rade Šerbedžija. Ristić says that the idea was to collect “the diversity [of Yugoslavia] in a unified cultural space, to preserve these differences which were the richness of society.” They called the troupe “KPGT” — the first letters of the words for “theatre” in four Yugoslav languages.

By the early 1980s, KPGT was a critically acclaimed company operating on the global stage. Their largest production, Carmina Burana, was seen by over 100,000 people in its first fortnight at the Belgrade Sava Centre. Meanwhile, The Liberation of Skopje — one of KPGT’s most renowned productions — would ultimately be performed over 800 times in cities throughout the world, including New York, London, and Moscow.

Contrary to other Yugoslav troupes, KPGT operated without state subsidies, both to maintain freedom of expression and because, for Ristić, ticket sales were the only valuable measure of success: while subsidies kept tickets affordable, they also reduced the appetite for creative risk. Reviewing the US premiere of The Liberation of Skopje in Denver in 1982, the American magazine Bravo positively described KPGT as an “aberration” from the routine and conventional Yugoslav productions emerging at the time.
In 1985, Ristić found KPGT a permanent home in the struggling national theatre in the city of Subotica, Vojvodina. Ristić discovered a staff comprised of bickering nationalities — a microcosm of the growing disagreements between the Yugoslav states — and began forging a unified company able to produce the kind of spectacles that soon placed the city on the cultural map. Danka Palian, a company member from Sarajevo, recalls that Ristić “impressed upon the team his belief that ‘there is one universal language, and it’s the language of theatre’.”

By the end of the 80s, Ristić was one of Yugoslavia’s most important directors, known for a pointed and experimental style that confronted the issues of the day. Festivals organised by KPGT regularly included hundreds of performers from around Yugoslavia and beyond, operating on stages located in multiple cities simultaneously.

“I was given names like ‘the father of political theatre’,” recalls Ristić. “That wasn’t true. We were not using theatre for political activism. We used political themes to tell the stories of life.”

Outside of the theatre, nationalist sentiments were escalating into sporadic violence. Tito’s death in 1980 had fractured the national psyche, and foreign powers, keen to see Yugoslavia’s influence reduced, took the opportunity to stoke division.

In 1986, Slobodan Milošević became leader of the Serbian League of Communists. In order to gain support among Serbian nationalists, he had exploited opposition to Kosovar independence. Once elected, he took control of both Kosovo and Vojvodina by revoking devolved powers, and helped his allies into power in Montenegro. This imbalance of power provided fuel for nationalist movements across the union and, in 1991, Slovenia and Croatia declared independence, triggering war. Over the next four years, the dream of a united Yugoslavia disintegrated in horrifying, bloody fashion.

While Ristić stood opposed to the violence and avoided attachment to any side, the war immediately affected KPGT. Some of the troupe, including its co-founders residing outside Serbia, became detached, and cultural sanctions imposed by the UN made it impossible to tour outside the country, decimating their budget. “We could make $1 million a year in America or Europe,” Ristić says. “Under cultural sanctions, we had no possibility to go abroad.” Unable to travel, KPGT extended their operations to Belgrade in 1994. They squatted the derelict Sugar Factory and began performing to small audiences without windows, doors, power, or water.

When the violence came to a temporary end in 1995, Milošević had recast himself as peacemaker and began promoting “unity” among what remained of the federation. Milošević‘s influential wife and confidante, Mira Marković, decided to counter growing Serbian nationalist forces — which included her husband’s Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS) — with a more traditional form of Yugoslav communism. She formed a new party, The Yugoslav Left (JUL), merging 19 smaller left-wing parties, and began searching for a charismatic leader to unite its various factions.

…continue reading on The Calvert Journal

Welcome to Comfort Town.

This is an excert from A nation’s tensions are laid bare in Kyiv’s colourful city-within-a-city. Welcome to Comfort Town which was published on The Calvert Journal in April 2019.

The election on Sunday of comedian Volodymyr Zelensky as the nation’s new president has shown just how deep dissatisfaction with the status quo runs in Ukraine. In one corner of Kyiv, a housing development tells the story of generational divisions and the uneasy search for a workable future among the country’s youth.

Glance out of the aeroplane window as you descend into Kyiv’s Borispol airport and you are likely to spot a 40-hectare explosion of rainbow-coloured concrete on the ground below. This is Comfort Town, erupting from its drab surroundings like Lego on a shabby grey carpet.

Comfort Town’s 180 low-rise apartment buildings are indeed inspired by children’s building blocks; a playful response to the sprawling 1950s and 60s communist-era housing that encircles them. The secured grounds operate as a city-within-a-city, housing everything needed for modern life, from shops and restaurants to schools and gyms.

“Your little slice of Europe in Kyiv,” declares the brochure. Indeed, for the most part, its 8,500 apartments and manicured courtyards have been embraced by a generation of young families and urban professionals who feel culturally closer to Europe than to the country’s Soviet heritage.

Ukraine is a country struggling against endemic corruption, suffocating poverty, chronic depopulation, and a gruelling war with Russia-backed separatists. Stifled by a powerful elite unwilling to relinquish control, much of the country has failed to modernise in its 28 years of independence. In this context, islands of modernity like Comfort Town raise the important question of whether such developments are a precursor to wider progress in the country, or a symptom of a system incapable of change.

Conceived in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, Comfort Town was built on the site of a disused rubber factory on Kyiv’s Left Bank. Confusingly located to the right of the Dnieper river, the Left Bank is often derided as the less desirable side of the city, thanks to its lack of landmarks, poor transport, and endless Soviet-era housing projects, now some of the most deprived neighbourhoods in the city. Despite this, Comfort Town has proven incredibly popular, claiming the title of “Ukraine’s most successful development” (in terms of unit sales) since independence.

Unlike many older estates, the buildings and common spaces in Comfort Town are well maintained. Responsibility is shared among residents through service charges, democratic voting rights, and a Facebook group with nearly 10,000 members. People take collective responsibility in a way that is uncommon elsewhere in the city.

“In the Soviet Union, people didn’t have to take responsibility, because somebody else did,” explains Alina Dvorzhanska, 30, a property manager and interior designer who works regularly in Comfort Town. She tells me it’s normal for common areas in older buildings to be uncared for. “The younger generation wants to live in new developments because the neighbourhood thinks differently. They care because they know no one else will.”

“The younger generation wants to live in new developments because the neighbourhood thinks differently.”

By isolating itself from the outside, Comfort Town has also become a refuge for some residents who have been subject to racism elsewhere. Neuro Lloyd, a black Zimbabwean who emigrated to Ukraine six years ago to study medicine, has been violently attacked in other parts of the city eight times. He receives verbal abuse on an almost almost daily basis. “In Comfort Town,” he says, “I haven’t had any of those problems. I feel so much more comfortable walking around, especially at night.”

Although beyond the reach of the city’s poorest, the complex is still considered affordable for those on middle incomes. For many residents, however, living in Comfort Town is about more than economics. Tetiana Donets, 23, a film producer who lives and works in Comfort Town, says she loves where she lives but is under no illusions about what her home represents…

…continue reading on The Calvert Journal

Into the Zone: 4 days inside Chernobyl's secretive 'stalker' subculture

This article was originally published on The Calvert Journal as Into the zone: 4 days inside Chernobyl’s secretive ‘stalker’ subculture on January 8th 2019.

In the shadows of the tourist boom in Chernobyl Exclusion Zone are the ‘stalkers’; Young Ukrainian men, now offering an illegal alternative to the theatre of the official tours.

I can feel the undergrowth digging into my legs as the two of us hide among the trees in anxious silence. The darkness is so absolute I feel entombed within it. It’s been seven hours since my last drink. Kirill, our guide, left to get water with the others, but they haven’t returned; after hearing a barking dog in the distance, we fear they’ve been caught.

We entered the 2,600-square kilometre Chernobyl Exclusion Zone illegally last night. Without Kirill, we are lost, somewhere in a forest, with no water, no map, and no plan.

Well, it would be a dark and solemn reminder if it had not been turned into a paintballing arena. This being Colombia, once the tour of the main mansion is completed, it is time to suit up and head to the series of annexes close by for some good old ‘capture the flag’, or in this case ‘capture the coke’.

In recent years, the Zone, a highly restricted area in northern Ukraine that surrounds the site of the 1986 nuclear disaster, has become a tourist hotspot. Each morning, tour buses queue at the entry checkpoint where a souvenir shop plastered with nuclear warning symbols peddles neon keyrings and radiation suits. The guides’ t-shirts read: “Follow me and you will survive”. In fact, the dangers are minimal. Along their tightly demarcated routes, these visitors will be exposed to less radiation than during a routine x-ray.

Beyond youthful rebellion, the motivations of the modern stalkers are complex, and speak to the national trauma that resulted from a tragedy whose effects will be felt for generations. And now there is another side to the practice. Enterprising stalkers have started offering their own “illegal tours” to travellers seeking a less restricted (and therefore more dangerous) experience of the Exclusion Zone. I joined one such tour in an effort to discover why visitors might chose a stalker over an official guide. Can a subculture that is so tied to deep wells of personal and national loss really offer something of value to an outsider?

Accompanying me on my journey into the Zone are two Americans, Bradley Garrett and Steve Doe (not his real name), and a Brit, Darmon Richter. Garrett and Richter are renowned urban explorers; the former’s passion for adventure has earned him a PhD, a column for The Guardian, and criminal convictions in four countries, while the latter himself runs tours of post-socialist ruins. We meet in a bar, awaiting our stalker, Kirill Stepanets. Having first visited Chernobyl at the age of 21, Kirill has completed over 100 illegal trips to the Zone. When he arrives, he is tall and fair, with long stubble and a round face. His frameless glasses bounce in unison with jovial, shifting facial expressions. He is not the stoic, battle-scarred individual I had pictured.

Before long, we are driving through a town close to the Zone’s perimeter. “They will bring us here if we get caught,” Kirill jokes, doing little to calm my nerves. Nobody knows the exact implications of getting caught for a foreigner; the least we can expect is a jail cell.

The van delivers us to the head of a dark, sandy trail. Neon-green fireflies pulse gently around us as we creep past a police checkpoint. Soon we are wading through the waist-deep Uzh river that forms the Zone’s southern border, bags held above our heads. Once on the other bank, Kirill turns and grins: “Turn your lights on. Nobody can see us now.”

Our destination for the night is a small village left uninhabited for 32 years — bar the occasional stalker. The road has long disappeared below the forest floor; bungalows emerge as angular shadows from between the trees, like witch’s cabins in a cartoon nightmare. Foliage reaches into open windows and paint crinkles away from brickwork. Most of the roofs are sunken or collapsed, having succumbed to the weight of three decades of decay.

The house we enter is in better shape, although inside there is little sign of its former residents. Gone are their possessions, furniture, radiators, even wiring. A thick layer of chalky dust covers the floors. “It’s not radioactive,” Kirill says, walking between the rooms, “but it is dirty.”

My thoughts turn again to Roadside Picnic. Parallels are easily drawn between Chernobyl stalkers and those from the novel, not least their high tolerance of risk. One such risk is ingesting strontium-90, a radioactive particle found in soil, water, and wild food from the Zone. The body absorbs strontium as calcium, potentially leading to bone cancer decades later. Despite this, videos of stalkers consuming water and fruit from the Zone emerge regularly. In our case, guides from official tours would hide supply caches for us to recover. But this, as we were to discover, brought its own risks.

Darmon and I wait in silence between the trees, not knowing what has become of Kirill, Steve, and Bradley. The glare of torches breaks through the trees. My heart thumps so loudly I’m afraid it will give us away. I lie against the forest floor, paranoid that my every breath is bringing strontium particles drifting into my mouth.

“Guys?” sounds a familiar voice. It is them, and they have the cache.

“The idiot left it five metres from a checkpoint with a fucking dog!” Kirill tells us. “Took me four goes to crawl close enough. The guard came out, but we ran.”

We unpack the supplies and I ask Kirill if he is OK. “Better than all the people in the world!” he responds, slicing his camping knife into a salami.

Steve is more concerned. “Won’t the guard come looking for us?”

Kirill gives a dismissive wave of his hand. “He is too lazy. He won’t leave his comfortable chair.”

As the adrenaline wears off, I struggle to remember a time I had felt more tense, or more exhilarated. This combination, of course, is part of the attraction of stalking: unlike the theatre of official tours, here the stakes are real. You evade capture, or you go to jail. You have bottled water, or you roll the strontium dice.

The following day, we hike through vast meadows and wild forests. Despite being described as a “dead zone”, every corner is brimming with life. Eagles swoop low, deer run freely, wild boar grunt, and insects bustle. In the midst of this natural utopia, the crippled artifacts of humanity reveal themselves: a road sign, a field gate, a crumbling storehouse. Reminders that, once upon a time, this land was part of the empire of the Soviet Union.

Kirill wanders ahead, spinning and jabbing a stick he acquired to clear a path through the spiderwebs. “Pow, yeah!” He seems oblivious to the world around him. He stops next to a tree with huge red apples hanging from it, picks one and bites into it. “Delicious!”

It occurs to me that Kirill was born four years after the disaster and just one year before the USSR collapsed. All he knows of that state is the turmoil that followed. But here in the Zone, he can step back into Ukraine’s not-so-distant past and recover a small part of what was lost. Walking freely among the poisoned ruins of the great empire that shaped his world, perhaps the trauma of its collapse is easier to comprehend.

Since the fall of the Soviet Union, lax security and endemic corruption have meant the Zone is easy to penetrate. Looters, metal thieves, poachers, and loggers are commonplace. There are even rumours of criminals extracting plutonium, or burying bodies in the Red Forest — a highly contaminated area of woodland along the road to Pripyat, Chernobyl’s “dead city”. The soil there is so contaminated that even the police are not allowed to intervene, making it the perfect place to conceal something you never want discovered.

We wait until dark before setting off towards Pripyat. “The road is long, dangerous, and very boring,” Kirill tells us. “Stay quiet and in line. My last group moved like cattle.” He motions his hand haphazardly.

A sliver of moon illuminates the tarmac. Above me, glistening, unpolluted stars keep my mind from the fact that, once again, I am out of water just when I need it most. We round a corner and Kirill stops. In the distance, a dim light dances gently by the road.
“A torch?” Bradley asks.

“Maybe illegal workers,” Kirill says. “We must be careful.”

He directs us onto a railway track which runs parallel to the road, separated by 20 metres of radioactive foliage. We creep from one sleeper to the next. In the darkness the slabs of wood appear to shift beneath my feet. I miss one; the crunch of stones shatters the silence like a crack of lightning.

As we pass the dancing light, I see what appears to be a tent beside the track. The others look elsewhere and see something different. “Two men in white Hazmat suits, digging,” Steve hisses after we pass. An official tour guide would later report back to me that, at the spot I described, he saw freshly turned earth, about the size of a grave.

Trudging through the forest, we approach Pripyat, exhausted and thirsty. At a clearing we turn off our lights. My eyes adjust to the familiar darkness and I see tarmac at my feet. But there is something else, too. I can feel it. As I lift my gaze the sight sends a shiver through my depleted body. All around us, towering shadows reach high above the treeline. Like 15-storey headstones, the city’s apartment blocks stand silent, frozen, and hopeless. It is mesmerising. My body ceases complaining. This is something that no book, photo, film can convey: a foreboding sense of the unimaginable tragedy that unfolded here.

Under the next morning’s light, we explore the ruined buildings that have made Pripyat such a popular tourist attraction. Inside, children’s dolls and gas masks lay arranged in photogenic still-lives, elaborate fictions constructed for dramatic effect — a reminder that most Chernobyl tourism is about Instagram likes, not history.

At the corner of an overgrown junction on the outskirts of the city, we pass a large concrete sign with some sarcastic stalker graffiti: “Tours for profit: we make money from tragedy.” Kirill laughs. “Stalkers are hypocrites — they would make money if they could.”

Later, from the highest rooftop in Pripyat, we watch lightning illuminate the evening sky. Angry forks of electricity appear to strike the giant metallic dome of the protective “sarcophagus” that now houses the defunct reactor. In the distance, a dog barks: a sign of more stalkers? “There are maybe 50 stalkers in Pripyat right now,” Kirill tells us.

Tomorrow we will return to the real world, smuggled out in a worker’s jeep. For now, there some is time to reflect. In the last four days, I’ve walked 70 kilometres and endured discomfort and adrenaline-induced anxiety. I’ve slept six hours in total, reeled with radiation paranoia and faced the prospect of disaster. At times the tragic surroundings have been profoundly affecting. Now, my body aches more deeply than ever. Yet in spite of all this, I feel good. My mind is quiet and alert. Is this my prize for enduring the risks?

The idea that Ukrainians are drawn to stalking as a form of catharsis is logical. By occupying the Zone, they redefine a wound in the national psyche. It becomes at once a museum, a nature reserve, and a haven from the turbulent country outside. As the nation struggles with chronic uncertainty, life in the Zone remains the very antithesis of instability. Even as an outsider, these motivations remain pertinent. Stalking delivers an insight into a historical event of chilling relevance in a way that an official tour cannot. Meanwhile, the sheer physical rewards of risk and survival combine, in a fashion, to deliver an unlikely meditative escape.

Given this varied appeal, it is possible that stalking will quickly become a victim of its own success. What happens when the popularity of these tours leads to a crackdown? Kirill is unconcerned: “The police have no money. Anyway, more stalkers mean more people for them to catch before me.”

The acute dangers involved rather than the police will likely prevent illegal tours from developing too far. Even surviving a trip intact is not guarantee of safe passage: it will be decades before I know whether I accidentally ingested strontium-90.

Nevertheless, just as the characters of Tarkovsky and the Strugatskys are drawn back to their treacherous alien zones, it is easy to see how, for some — even outsiders — stalking can become an obsession. Alongside the rich academic attraction, stalking provides a unique way to satisfy a deep thirst for adventure that has, in the modern world, become difficult to quench. As I write these words safely cocooned at home, the thought of returning to that dark, uncomfortable, mysterious, exhilarating existence is undeniably alluring.

“It’s like during war,” Kirill told me. “When a soldier returns home, he hates normal life. He just wants to go back.”

This article was originally published on The Calvert Journal on January 8th 2019

Mud, Mountains and Motels - Colombia by Motorbike

A previous version of this article was published in the November/December 2016 issue of Adventure Bike Rider

The road curved along the reservoir to one side, on the other a steep rock face rose up towards the blue sky. The bike’s engine hummed away beneath me, gently merging with the thrum of rubber rolling over tarmac. I was alone, just the open road, a gentle breeze and the warm afternoon sun. Suddenly, my life was flashing before my eyes; hurtling around a blind apex towards me was a wall of metal and glass the width of the entire road. A coach overtaking a truck into the corner. I lunged over, my weight drawing the bike quickly across the road and off into the dusty run-off area, coming to a stop as the wind displaced by twenty tonnes of steel collided with my face. Welcome to Colombia.

Four months earlier I had arrived in Medellin, Colombia’s fashionable and progressive second city, with one goal: to explore the country by motorbike. Having passed my bike test in London the previous month, I was eager to hit the road and attain my status as an ‘adventure rider’.

My excitement was quickly overtaken by sheer panic as I caught a glimpse of Medellin’s dense and chaotic traffic. A quick Google search provided some terrifying stats; road accidents in Colombia are the second most common cause of unnatural death, after acts of violence. In 2014 there were 8,100 deaths on the roads, almost half of which involved motorbikes. When calculating deaths per vehicle, you are nearly 16 times more likely to die in an accident in Colombia than in the UK.

After some significant effort forcing my head into the sand and diverting my attention away from gruesome death-by-truck and onto the lure of my first bike, I set about touring the numerous moto-dealers in the city. I settled on a local brand, AKT. Their bikes were cheap and cheerful Chinese imports and the model in question was a 250cc ‘adventure bike’, which resembled a BMW bike popular in Europe, but at a tenth of the price. “It’s better than the BMW” the salesman assured me. It clearly wasn’t, but being British, I smiled and nodded to avoid causing offence.

I named my new bike “Ling”, meaning “delicate and dainty”

In the hope that flattery might lead to reliability, I named my new bike “Ling”, meaning “delicate and dainty” in Chinese. I was all set, now it was time to push past the aching fear that had returned to my belly and hit the road. First stop: Colombia’s Grand Canyon.

At 2,000m in depth, Chicamocha Canyon has been carved into the mountainous terrain over millions of years by the flow of the Chicamocha river. I entered the canyon along the bank of the river, and began the steep ascent to its crest. The freshly tarmaced road spun me through the epic natural wonder in ever more awe-inspiring ways, with little traffic to distract me. I don’t know if every biker has a day that will forever be the moment they knew motorbiking was special, but for me, it was that day riding through Chicamocha Canyon. The air ran across my face and I was surrounded by mountains reaching for the sky. The road ahead unravelled like a winding, tarmac red carpet. I was hooked. A car suddenly seemed like that ex you can’t understand why you were ever in love with.

The fun at Chicamocha did not end there, however. In true Colombian style, I was greeted at the summit by something rather unexpected: a theme park, complete with buggy racing, an aqua park, two restaurants, a zipline and an ostrich farm. Yes, you really can follow the ride of your life by chucking seeds at the world’s largest flightless bird.

A few days later, I found myself in another astonishing land of wanderlust, this time without the additional adventure park. I was in the foothills of the Los Nevados nature reserve, ascending from the village of Murillo. As I climbed, the road turned to dirt. Around me, the clouds drifted like giant airships, partially obscuring the views of the vast volcanic landscape. I was riding through the sky into a prehistoric vista of towering brutalist rock formations, decorated by alien plants and steep narrow waterfalls, cascading down through the clouds to the valley floor below.

As the road became rougher, crossing streams and negotiating deep ruts and troughs, I felt like a real ‘adventure biker’, with just me and my little Chinese girl bouncing and rattling around this jurassic world, far away from civilisation.

It was at this point that my Ling decided to demonstrate that she most certainly was not a BMW. I had stopped to take a photo and on returning to the bike, she refused to start. I turned the key in earnest until the battery gave its last jolt. I hadn’t seen another soul in hours and the sun was beginning to set. My only option: a push-start.

If there is a worst place to push-start a bike, a rough dirt track with a steep drop on one side has to be up there. I clasped the handle bars and groaned as my dainty girl revealed her true, grotesque mass. I picked up some speed, dropped the clutch and she lurched into life, giving me a brief moment to squeeze the brake before we both tumbled over the edge and into the gorgeous abyss, Thelma and Louise style. Crisis averted, I continued. Next stop: the ‘Zona Cafeteria’.

After fossil fuels (and cocaine), coffee is Colombia’s top export, accounting for 8% of the world’s total coffee production. The Zona Cafeteria (meaning ‘Coffee region’) is where the majority of that production takes place. So beautiful is this area, that in 2011, UNESCO declared it a World Heritage site. The rolling hills of the plantations meet the cloud topped mountain ranges running along the horizon. Quaint gravel paths wind through lush green valleys where horses graze and crystal clear streams flow nearby. Villages of brightly coloured houses and public squares draped in flowers are centered around beautiful gothic churches. The Zona Cafeteria is Colombia at its best.

After a couple of days touring bustling coffee farms, visiting the world’s tallest palm trees, riding horses to waterfalls and, of course, drinking coffee, it was time to get back on the road.

Colombia’s heartlands provided an endless stream of sensory stimulation: Tatacoa Desert, a tropical dry forest full of incredible rusty red rock formations; “The Trampoline of Death”, Colombia’s most dangerous road, akin to the infamous Death Road in Bolivia; Las Lajas Sanctuary, a beautiful Church built into the side of a steep canyon; a horizon full of electrical storms in Mompos; the colorful colonial town of Cartagena; postcard beaches of Tayrona and Palomino. It was difficult to understand why the only things the world associated with Colombia were Pablo Escobar and cocaine.

Throughout my journey, finding places to sleep was easy; cheap local hotels were everywhere, littering the roads into and out of towns and cities. Yet one vital piece of information had somehow escaped me as I rode through the inviting pebble-dashed arch of Motel Flores, a few parched roses either side.

Perhaps I should have noticed something was amiss from the start. The owner – a middle-aged man with meandering eyes, dark greasy stubble, and a grubby white t-shirt that strained to contain his belly – appeared confused at my request of a bed for the night. “40,000 pesos?” he said after a pause, as though it was the first time he had had to consider such a thing.

He led me to a series of garages with rooms above. I rode in and he yanked the shutter behind me. “Call the phone if you want to come out”, was all I heard over the sound of metal crashing into concrete. Just visible in the gloom ahead of me was a concrete staircase.

The room was illuminated by the hard glow of a naked bulb. A gigantic ornate mirror hung opposite the weathered, walnut bed. Dull flowery wallpaper peeled at the corners while the fluorescent linen lit up the bed in a carnival of kitsch. Overhead, a tired ceiling fan clicked and whirred. Laying in bed, I noticed an industrial toilet roll dispenser hanging on the wall beside me. Next to it, a torn, poorly printed sign was taped to the wall; it was hourly prices for the room. There was no price for the night.

I was thankful for just one thing: I didn't have a UV light.

I leapt up and peeled back the sheet I had been lying on, exposing a plastic mattress so blotchy it resembled a Jackson Pollock painting. It all made skin-crawling sense, but it was too late to leave. I lay every item of clothing I had over the bed to provide a sterile buffer to the horrors below, and was thankful for just one thing: I didn’t have a UV light.

As soon as dawn broke, I picked up the phone and asked to be released. It was later that I heard the term “Motel de Amor”. Designed for lovers, truckers and cheaters, apparently, all Colombian motels are the same. Not that I can confirm that of course, I never stayed in one again.

My final stop was La Guajira: the most northern tip of South America. Desolate and isolated, it is one of the few places in the world where a desert meets an ocean. It also rains a lot, which turns the ‘road’ into a muddy slide. Thanks to a lack of mud-riding experience and my smooth road tyres, a journey that should have taken two hours, took six. At one point 8km took me an hour, which included three messy falls and a lot of cursing. As the sunlight disappeared over the horizon, the straight road became a winding desert track, with only my headlights to illuminate the sandy path that continually split and converged. All I had to go on was an approximate line on an empty Google map and to make matters worse, I was low on fuel.

As though dropped from the sky just for me, out of the darkness emerged a wooden shelter with a dim light illuminating bottles of gasoline. A young girl came jogging towards the light, apparently the gas attendant. I had stopped in the dark, so I slowly rode towards the space under the shelter. Unfortunately, I failed to notice that the roof was lower than the top of my helmet. The collision startled me and sent Ling tumbling into the sand, followed by my failing body, narrowly missing the table of highly flammable liquids. I clambered to my feet, in shock at my own stupidity as the girl keeled over laughing. Luckily, only my ego had suffered any damage.

I was sent on my way with a “que lindo”, meaning “how cute”. Pitied by a ten-year-old girl in the middle of a dark, empty desert – it was one of those days.

The next day began by nursing my still bruised ego over breakfast. I was exhausted and tiring of the challenges that riding a cheap bike in harsh conditions presented. I sat and fantasized about my return to a comfortable bed in Medellin. Yet, my inbound journey to La Guajira had shown me nothing of where I was, so I mustered up the energy for one last adventure.

It quickly became clear that I had arrived in a place beyond imagination. Almost untouched by the world outside, vast plains of barren golden sand were halted only by ragged coastal rocks and pristine beaches flowing into the deep turquoise of the Atlantic Ocean. Pelicans flew overhead, periodically diving for a catch, while swarms of tiny crabs scuttled around the unspoiled sands. It was hard to be anything other than awe-inspired in a place like this and seemed a fitting end to 7,000km journey.

The final 1000kms back to Medellin took two long and uneventful days of riding that gave me the opportunity to reflect the previous six weeks. In the hit TV series ‘Narcos’, which tells the violent history of Colombia in Pablo Escobar’s time, president Gaviria says “God made our land so beautiful it was unfair to the rest of the world. So to even the score, God populated the land with a race of evil men.” He wasn’t wrong, God (or perhaps more accurately plate tectonics) had made Colombia unimaginably beautiful in such a vast array of climates, landscapes and vistas that it almost felt like a whole continent unto itself. As for the evil men? I must have missed them.

Screws vanished, bodywork bent and broke, and the starting issues returned

Back in Medellin, I sold my rattling mistress for less than half what had I paid. I didn’t mind though, as towards the end it felt like every time I got on her, another piece had fallen off. She had looked up to the job, but it was all show. Screws vanished, bodywork bent and broke and the starting issues returned on several occasions. At one point the exhaust was a few turns of a screw away from throwing itself onto the road. But to be fair, when I did need repairs, they were ridiculously cheap. And, for the most part she had taken me where ever I had asked her, with little complaint. They say you get what you pay for, but in this case, perhaps she had given me more than I deserved.

I left Colombia feeling I had discovered the perfect place to experience the wonders of two wheels and attain my rite of passage into the world of motorbike adventures. But, more than that, I had discovered an absolute gem of a country that the rest of the world seems to have overlooked.

5 Amazing Roads for motorbiking in Colombia

There are few things more enjoyable than riding a motorbike on the open road. The freedom, the adventure, the world at your fingertips. Colombia is not the first place that would pop into your head when imagining where those perfect roads might be. But, as I discovered on my 8,000km ride around the country, it has some absolutely awe inspiring rides, from cold mountain top trails, to sunny, snaking tarmac, there is something for everyone. Are you looking for your next adventure biking destination? Look no further.

1: Via Al Nevado

Murillo to Thermales / 50km / 3.5 Hours / Cold

Surface Condition
Traffic Levels
Epic Scenery
Adventure Factor

A faint squiggle on most maps, this high altitude trail runs alongside the national park Los Nevados. Among the magical volcanic scenery are immense brutalist rock formations, cascading waterfalls and black lakes. Other vehicles are few and far between up here and expect to cross streams, negotiate deep rutted tracks and run alongside steep precipices. And, when the clouds descend around you, partially obscuring the epic scenery, you will find yourself in an alien world, floating in the sky. Just don’t forget your jacket as temperatures can reach freezing.

2: Pan American Highway

Chichagui to El Tablon / 42km / 50 Minutes / Hot

Surface Condition
Traffic Levels
Epic Scenery
Adventure Factor

One of the most famous routes in the world, the Pan American Highway spans 30,000km, all the way from Alaska to Patagonia. While the majority of its route in Colombia is uninspiring, this 60km section sweeps along the side of a stunning deep arid canyon. Surprisingly low on traffic and for the most part a great surface makes this a superb ride.

3: Chicamocha Canyon

Piedecuesta to Aratoca / 50km / 1 Hour / Mild

Surface Condition
Traffic Levels
Epic Scenery
Adventure Factor

At 2000m deep, Chicamocha Canyon is Colombia’s own ‘Grand Canyon’ and the road which sweeps and winds through it is
simply a joy to ride. The perfect surface, the endless curves and the stunning scenery – if there is one road in Colombia that will remind
you why you chose to ride a motorbike, this is it. It is also well worth leaving time to stop at the National Park which sits at the summit where you will find restaurants, hiking trails, paragliding and stunning 360° views of the Canyon.

4: El Trampoline De Muerte

Mococa to San Francisco / 76km / 3.5 Hours / Mild

Surface Condition
Traffic Levels
Epic Scenery
Adventure Factor

Built to transport soldiers at the height of Colombia’s civil war, the ‘Trampoline of Death’ cuts an almost impossibly steep route through the countries jungle covered mountains close to the border with Ecuador. It got it’s name for good reason; it is Colombia’s most dangerous road where 500 people lost their lives in 2011. The narrow, dirt track is used by trucks, buses, cars and bikes alike and, while it has had some additional barriers added in recent years, drivers remain largely unprotected from the huge precipices, landslides
and extreme weather that plagues the route. Catch it on a good day however and it offers an exhilarating and truly adventurous riding experience unlike any other in Colombia.

5: Tatacoa

Alpujarrá to Villavieja / 70km / 2.5 Hours / Very Hot

Surface Condition
Traffic Levels
Epic Scenery
Adventure Factor

Tatacoa Desert is actually a tropical dry forest and a stunningly different landscape to the rest of the already varied Colombia. As you descend from the mild mountain town of Alpujarra, the landscape transforms around you; trees are replaced by huge cactai and the green flora by bare rose coloured rock, while the temperature increases well into the thirties. As the road turns to dirt, you sweep into the vast open desert, free to explore a truly intriguing landscape. Just don’t forget your suncream.

If you find yourself in Colombia looking to rent a bike or  to tour in a group, Motolombia is a great place to start. Based in Cali, they stock a great range European and Japanese bikes and do bike tours all over the country.

Paintballing in Pablo Escobar's Mansion

In Colombia, they tell a story about Pablo Escobar. It begins at a pool party in of one of Escobar’s holiday mansions. There is a band playing, the champagne is flowing and the movers and shakers of Escobar’s drug empire are enjoying the trimmings of his multi-billion dollar wealth. Then the music stops.

Escobar emerges from the house, a man bound and gagged in tow. “This man works for me.” he announces. “He stole $50 of coca from my factory. He is a thief!”. The crowd shuffle and murmur uncomfortably. “Do you want to know what I do with those who steal from me?” he says, now talking in a calm sinister tone. Escobar looks deep into the terrified man’s eyes, then with a shove, he pushes him into the pool. A minute or two passes before the splashing stops and the water goes quiet. The music starts again. Left floating in the pool is a warning to anyone considering crossing Escobar.

It is this story that comes to mind as I stare at the slimy green water in the bottom of the swimming pool. Around me is the beautiful surroundings of Guatape lake in Colombia. I am on a tour of a crumbling and deserted mansion. Until the mid 1990’s, this was the property of one Pablo Emilio Escobar Gaviria. Now it is a solemn reminder of a dark and bloody period in Colombian history.

We continued on, through the graffiti covered interior. Some of the walls have large holes in them which look out of place even amongst the ruin. “People came looking for money he had hidden” our guide explains. This is no surprise when you consider that, at the height of his empire, Escobar was spending $2,500 on rubber bands just to wrap his fortune, a fortune which grew at an estimated $60 million a day.

For Colombian’s it’s a period they would rather forget. For tourists however, it is still an area of morbid fascination. That is why the next part of our day involved guns, yellow paint and a game called ‘capture Pablo’; we were off to play paintball, Colombian style.

Holes in the mansion's walls, where treasure hunters searched for Escobar's hidden cash.

We were led to a series of annexes close to the main mansion which would have housed Escobar’s extended family, perhaps even his mother. Now the decaying shells of once decadent structures created post apocalyptic overtones to the exhilarating chaos of paintballing. It was an absolute hoot.

In the final game, I was Escobar himself, hunted by a team of 10 DEA agents. There were three of us left alive, barricaded into an upstairs bedroom. We were low on ammo, but only one more agent stood between us and safety. We waited in silence, lying low to the floor, guns pointing at the top of staircase, our trigger fingers ready for the first sign of movement.

Only one DEA agent stood between us and safety

Suddenly there was a flurry of shots fired and a sharp pain in my ass. I spun around in agony to see the barrel of a gun poking through the window behind us. The agent had climbed up what remained of a concrete gazebo and quietly aimed for maximum distress. Howls of laughter came as I hobbled across the courtyard to the other players, sore and defeated.

It’s difficult to know what Escobar would have thought to a group of gringos shouting, laughing and shooting yellow paint all over his property. Given the horrors he unleashed on this country, and the scars that are still healing, I can only hope he’s turning in his grave.

Want to do this yourself? We signed up for the trip at the Lake View Hostel in Guatape town. Simply write your name on the board and turn up in the morning to catch the boat. The half day experience cost 80,000 COP (around £25).