Tag Archives: iceland

Around in the world in five posts: H-J

Three years ago, at the end of part two, I pondered whether part three would appear before 2018. It did not. Nor did it appear in 2019. But 2020 is all about having lots of time on our hands and not being able to go anywhere, so the imaginary adventure continues at last…

 

Haiti flag

Haiti

Haïti • Ayiti
  • Official Name: Republic of Haiti
  • Capital City: Port-au-Prince
  • Population: 10,604,000
  • Language: French, Haitian Creole
  • Currency: Haitian gourde
  • Continent: North America

What’s Haiti like?

The second-most populous country in the Caribbean region, Haiti occupies the western third of the island of Hispaniola, which it shares with the larger, more prosperous Dominican Republic. Heavily influenced by a combination of French colonial rule and African cultures and traditions, Haiti is a beautiful but poverty-stricken nation that is also prone to devastating natural disasters. At one time, Haiti was, by some measures, the richest colony in the world. However, conditions for the thousands and thousands of slaves brought over from Africa to work the sugar plantations were grotesque. Modern, independent Haiti has suffered through numerous periods of violence, military coups, and brutal dictatorships, and UN peacekeeping troops have been in position in Haiti since violence erupted following an election in 2004. The country has, in the past, invaded and occupied neighbouring Dominican Republic, and relations today can be tetchy. Of particular concern is the status and conditions of Haitian refugees over the border.

Haiti map
Haiti

Haiti is a deeply religious society. While the majority of Haitians are Catholic, there is also a sizable and growing  Protestant minority. However, the country is perhaps best known for the practice of Vodou (or Voodoo), a mysterious and sometimes misunderstood tradition with its roots in west Africa, that was brought over by slaves. Many Catholics also practice elements of Vodou, although it is more heavily frowned upon in Protestant circles. French remains widely spoken, alongside a local Creole. The country is largely mountainous, and lies in the hurricane belt, exposing it to severe storms. In 2010, hundreds of thousands of Haitians lost their lives in an earthquake, the consequences of which are still felt a decade on.

One cool thing about Haiti

The country was the site of Christopher Columbus’s landing in the New World. However, Columbus was at first convinced that he had arrived in India. A statue of Columbus stands proudly in the capital, Port-au-Prince.

One sad thing about Haiti

More than half of all Haitians are considered to be living in abject poverty, while around 80% fall under the poverty line to some degree. Haiti is ranked as the poorest country in the western hemisphere.

Neighbours Textbox
Haiti’s only land border is to the east with the Dominican Republic on the island of Hispaniola. Cuba, meanwhile, lies roughly 60 miles away across the North Atlantic to the northwest, and Jamaica is 120 miles to the southwest. Between Haiti and Jamaica lies the tiny island of Navassa, administered by the United States, but claimed by Haiti.

 

What’s it like for tourists?

It would be a mistake to assume that the country’s history of social strife, poverty and lack of infrastructure have left it isolated. In truth, Haiti is a moderately popular tourist destination, with the potential for considerable development. This would, however, pose a real challenge to an ecologically and environmentally fragile country. Haiti is famous for its beautiful coastline and pristine beaches, and its resorts are often surprisingly luxurious and exclusive. Indeed, the Labadee area has been leased in its entirety to the Royal Caribbean cruise company and is fenced off from the rest of Haiti. The area around the country’s second city, Cap Haïtienne, is especially popular with beachgoers.

Haiti passport
Haitian passport

The country’s towns and cities are blessed with beautiful colonial architecture, although the chaos and open poverty will prove a shock to those not prepared. Haiti is also home to a large number of ruined palaces and forts that hark back to the various civilisations and powers that have ruled over the island of Hispaniola. The mountains, meanwhile, offer stunning scenery and will please any enthusiastic trekker, although safety precautions must be taken. The likelihood of falling ill while in Haiti is high, so it’s best to be fully prepared before travelling. There is still much devastation from the 2010 earthquake, including in the capital, which can make getting around difficult. Despite the challenges, the remarkably warm welcome offered by the locals, plus the undeniable beauty of their nation, make Haiti a real bucket-list destination.

Haiti
Citadelle Laferrière, Cap Haïtienne

 

Honduras flag

Honduras

  • Official Name: Republic of Honduras
  • Capital City: Tegucigalpa
  • Population: 8,249,574
  • Language: Spanish
  • Currency: Lempira
  • Continent: North America

What’s Honduras like?

One of the poorest countries in the Americas, Honduras is synonymous with gang violence, murder and social strife. The country has also been to war with neighbouring El Salvador – a conflict known at the “football war”, having started during a football match – and has been on the receiving end of deadly natural disasters. Despite its troubles, Honduran society is vibrant and dynamic, with a culture influenced by Mayan and other Mesoamerican civilisations, as well as Spanish colonisation. As well as conflict with neighbouring nations, Honduras has also experienced periods of authoritarian rule, several military coups, and was a site of proxy conflict between the left and the right during the Cold War. It remains a key player in the transit of drugs between South and North America, and is still attempting to overcome a constitutional crisis that began in 2009 through a coup.

Honduras map
Honduras

Rather like other countries in the region, the Honduran landscape is dominated by mountains and rainforest. The country has a long coastline on the Caribbean Sea, dotted with lively port towns and attractive beaches. In the south is the short, more remote, Pacific coast on the Gulf of Fonseca. Honduras is seismically active, with volcanoes and regular, mostly mild earthquakes. Hurricanes are less frequent than in other areas of the Caribbean region, but as Hurricane Mitch demonstrated in 1998, they can be catastrophic when they hit. Thousands of Hondurans lost their lives in the storm, which also severely hampered the country’s fragile development.

One cool thing about Honduras

Every Good Friday in the colonial city of Comayagua, local people create spectacular religious tapestries out of wood shavings, which are then trampled out of existence under foot as soon as they are complete.

One sad thing about Honduras

The country has the highest murder rate in the world outside of conflict zones. Gang violence is rampant throughout the country, and although most of it is not targeted at ordinary people, it is not difficult to get caught in the crossfire.

Neighbours Textbox
Honduras has a western border with Guatemala, while El Salvador lies to the southwest. The country’s longest border is with Nicaragua in the southeast.

 

What’s it like for tourists?

Honduras shares with its Central American neighbours a rich culture and history, as well as abundant natural beauty, that make it a spectacular destination for travel.  The country has some impressive ruins from the Mayan civilisation, in particular at Copán in the far western region, near Guatemala. Picturesque towns such as Gracias and Comayagua abound with attractive colonial architecture. Honduras’s big cities, such as the capital Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula, can be quite dangerous and come with shockingly high crime rates, but with careful planning, they offer an insight into modern Honduran life. San Pedro Sula is well known for its vibrant nightlife.

Honduras passport
Honduran passport

The Cusuco National Park is popular with backpackers and offers breathtaking mountain scenery. Away from the interior, Honduras has beautiful Caribbean beaches, as well as idyllic islands renowned for snorkelling and diving opportunities. Honduras also has a UNESCO World Heritage site at the Río Plátano Biosphere Reserve in the northeast of the country. The area is resplendent with tropical wildlife, and transport is almost entirely by boat. As with other parts of Central America, care must be taken when travelling in Honduras. However, the violence that makes so many local lives miserable is rarely aimed at tourists, and with adequate planning, Honduras is far from off-limits.

Honduras
Roatán, Bay Islands

 

Hungary flag

Hungary

Magyarország
  • Official Name: Hungary
  • Capital City: Budapest
  • Population: 9,797,561
  • Language: Hungarian
  • Currency: Forint
  • Continent: Europe

What’s Hungary like?

A former eastern bloc country with a unique language and heritage, Hungary has, with the fall of communism, developed into a modern central European state with a strong economy. The Hungarian people are linguistically, culturally and ethnically distinct from their neighbours, with origins in central Asia. Their language is from the Finno-Ugric language family and is distantly related to Finnish and Estonian. Numerous ethnic Hungarians also live in neighbouring countries, particularly Slovakia, Romania and Ukraine. Within Hungary, notable minority groups include Slovaks, Romanians, Germans and Roma. The country at one time formed one of the great European powers as part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which ultimately collapsed having being on the losing side in the First World War. Much of the latter half of the 20th Century was spent under the yoke of Soviet communist influence, with the Hungarian uprising of 1956 one of this period’s most significant events.

Hungary map
Hungary

Hungary is small, and mostly consists of flat plains and rolling hills. In the west of the country is Lake Balaton, one of the largest lakes in Europe. All of Hungary falls within the flood plain of the mighty Danube, which flows through the country’s majestic capital city, Budapest. Some low mountain ranges can be found in border areas, including the very eastern edge of the Alps in the far west, near Austria. Although agriculture plays an important role in the economy, Hungary has achieved impressive growth since the collapse of communism and has fully transformed into a modern market economy, with an increasingly urbanised society.

One cool thing about Hungary

In 2011, Elvis Presley was posthumously made an official citizen of Budapest in commemoration of his drawing attention to the Hungarian uprising of 1956. There is a road in the city named after him, although it is more of a dusty track than an impressive boulevard.

One sad thing about Hungary

The 1956 Hungarian uprising was an attempt to throw off the country’s oppressive Soviet-aligned regime. Sadly, the revolution was crushed, with the loss of around 3,000 civilian lives.

Neighbours Textbox
Hungary may be small, but it still has seven neighbours for company. To the north is Slovakia, while there is a short border with Ukraine in the northeast. Romania  lies to the east. All three countries are home to significant Hungarian minorities, a legacy of when Hungarian territory was much larger than today’s republic. To the south are frontiers with Serbia and Croatia, while Slovenia is to the southwest and Austria is to the west.

 

What’s it like for tourists?

Hungary’s long history, unique culture and position in central Europe make for a fascinating tourist destination. The country’s capital, Budapest, has boomed with the advent of budget European air travel to become one of the continent’s most visited city-break spots. The city competes comfortably with the great cities of Europe in terms of its architecture and cultural influence, and has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1987. The banks of the Danube are renowned for their beautiful bridges and magnificent buildings, including the spectacular Hungarian parliament building, the largest in Europe. The Castle Quarter is also not to be missed. The city also has numerous parks and hills that make for some impressive views of the urban landscape.

Hungary passport
Hungarian passport

Away from the capital, the Hungarian countryside is pleasant and green, rather than spectacular. Lake Balaton, one of Europe’s largest lakes, is great for walking and sunbathing in the summer, and is surrounded by wine-growing regions and quaint traditional villages. Many of Hungary’s smaller towns and cities possess pleasing old towns and attractive centres with impressive architecture. It’s worth taking the time to experience Hungary’s hearty cuisine, dominated by paprika – a central ingredient to Hungarian dishes – and including such world-renowned dishes as goulash. Hungary is also famous for its bath houses and spas, which can be found almost anywhere in the country.

Hungary
Budapest

 

Iceland flag

Iceland

Ísland
  • Official Name: Iceland
  • Capital City: Reykjavík
  • Population: 332,529
  • Language: Icelandic
  • State Church: Church of Iceland
  • Currency: Icelandic króna
  • Continent: Europe

What’s Iceland like?

Perched at the top end of the North Atlantic Ocean, Iceland is a rocky, geologically active and starkly beautiful island, much of which is barren and uninhabitable. The country’s small population of around 330,000 is found mostly around the coast, with roughly three quarters of Icelanders living in and around the capital city, Reykjavík. The country’s interior is desolate – a land of mountains, geysirs, waterfalls, glaciers, volcanoes and barren rocky wastelands. Despite its name, Iceland is relatively temperate. Winters are cold, but considerably milder than other locations at the same latitude. Summers are cool and wet. Earth tremors are fairly common in Iceland, although they tend to be mild. Volcanoes, however, pose a threat to life and infrastructure.

Iceland map
Iceland

Iceland was first settled by celtic people from Great Britain and Ireland, alongside Vikings from Norway. The country gained independence from Denmark in 1944. The Icelandic language is remarkably close to Old Norse, and is difficult even for speakers of other Nordic tongues. Today, Iceland is an affluent country, often cited as one of the world’s most stable and prosperous societies. The country has a Nordic social welfare model and has in recent years become an attractive destination for immigration. Despite the fast pace of change that Icelandic society has gone through in the last few decades, the country holds firm to its traditions, including numerous examples of Icelandic folklore. Fishing plays a major role in the economy. Iceland suffered a mighty economic crash in 2008 that devastated the economy and led to widespread protests and political turmoil. In recent years, an unprecedented tourist boom has helped the country to bounce back in spectacular fashion.

One cool thing about Iceland

The country recently launched an app that allows frisky Icelanders to make sure that they are not too closely related to a potential partner – an ever-present risk in such a small, isolated country.

One sad thing about Iceland

The financial crisis that began in late 2008 was the largest in economic history, relative to the size of Iceland’s economy, and triggered a severe depression. All three major banks collapsed, the country’s economy collapsed and unemployment soared. The already high suicide rate increased as a consequence. Thankfully, Iceland appears to have navigated itself out of those dark days.

Neighbours Textbox
Iceland has no land borders and is surrounded by the chilly waters of the North Atlantic and Arctic Oceans. It’s nearest neighbours are Greenland, 550km to the northwest, and the Faroe Islands, 450km to the southeast. Both territories are part of the Danish kingdom.

 

What’s it like for tourists?

The tourist industry in Iceland has experienced an unprecedented boom since 2011, helping both to rescue the local economy after the economic crash, and to put considerable strain on this small country’s infrastructure. Reykjavík heaves with tourists, even in the dark, chilly depths of the Icelandic winter, with new hotels and guesthouses springing up all the time. Icelandic roads are having to cope with ever-increasing demand from buses and hire cars transporting visitors from the capital to the island’s many natural wonders.

Iceland passport
Icelandic passport

Most visitors come to Iceland in the hope of experiencing the northern lights (at least outside of the summer season). The Blue Lagoon is currently struggling to accommodate the number of visitors hoping to take a dip in its steaming waters. Þingvellir National Park has one of the world’s most spectacular, eerie landscapes, sitting along the boundary between two tectonic plates. Many also flock to witness the spectacle of the country’s geysirs. Reykjavík, meanwhile, has earned a reputation for some of Europe’s best nightlife.

You can read about my February 2016 trip to Iceland here.

Iceland
Reykjavík

 

India flag

India

भारत (Bhārat)
  • Official Name: Republic of India
  • Capital City: New Delhi
  • Largest City: Mumbai (formerly Bombay)
  • Population: 1,326,572,000
  • Language: Hindi, English, thousands of regional languages
  • Currency: Indian rupee
  • Continent: Asia

What’s India like?

It’s often said that India was never really supposed to be a country, a reference to the bewildering array of peoples, ethnic groups, religions, languages and cultures that co-exist in the world’s second largest nation. Yet somehow, despite all those differences, modern India has managed to forge the world’s largest democracy, with a growing economy that has lifted millions out of poverty and continues to do so. The outsourcing boom and the rise of the tech sector mean India is more plugged into the global economy than at any time in its history, with well-educated Indians driving forward the country’s rise as an economic force, with increasing geopolitical clout to boot.

India map
India

Despite this progress, problems remain. Democratic though its politics may be, India is a notoriously difficult place to govern, with so many competing aims and interests across vastly different regions and cultures. Poverty remains a problem, as does social cohesion and religious tension, which sometimes turns violent. The country is still mired in a stand-off with Pakistan and China over Kashmir, but it also faces other, lesser-known insurgencies across its vast territory. It’s a wonder that India holds together while so many forces push and pull it in different directions. But it does.

The country’s geography is as diverse as its populace, with some of the world’s tallest mountains in the north, as well as coastal ranges plunging towards the sea on both east and west coasts, with deserts and plains in the interior, rainforests, mighty rivers such as the Brahmaputra, Yamuna and the Ganges, and glaciated summits. India also includes tropical islands in the Indian Ocean, some of which are home to mysterious and barely contacted people groups and tribes. The country is also home to a diverse array of animal and plant species, with perhaps the best known being the Asian tiger, which is a major tourist draw. India is susceptible to natural disasters including flooding and drought, while earthquakes occur in the far north and cyclones can be devastating. The country’s large agricultural sector – including its subsistence farmers – remain reliant on the monsoon rains.

India2
Golden Temple, Amritsar

India is a majority Hindu nation, but the country is also home to a significant minority of Muslims (indeed, India has the third highest Muslim population in the world, despite them only making up around 20% of the Indian population), as well as being the home of the Sikh faith. There are also significant numbers of Jains, Buddhists, Bahai’is and Christians in India, as well as other smaller faiths.

Modern India is known worldwide for its cuisine, which differs depending on region, but has had a major influence on parts of the world – particularly Britain – that have interacted with the subcontinent in the past. Part of the colonial legacy of India is one of the world’s largest rail networks, a system of government based on that of Westminster, and a passion for cricket.

One cool thing about India

The Golden Temple at Amritsar in Punjab is officially recognised as the most visited place in the world, receiving over 100,000 Sikh devotees to their holiest shrine every single day.

One sad thing about India

The country has certainly achieved impressive economic growth and even has a space programme, but poverty remains a huge problem. In the region of 800 million people in India are considered poor by some international measures, and around two thirds of the population live on $2 a day.

Neighbours Textbox
India’s long northwestern border with its eternal enemy Pakistan is one of the most militarised in the world. In the north, things get complicated due to territorial disputes over Kashmir with Pakistan and China, as well the disputed Arunachal Pradesh, which India controls but which is claimed by China. If all of disputed Kashmir was considered to be part of India, then there would be a short border with Afghanistan. However, this area is controlled by Pakistan.
In the north, there is a border with Nepal while, in the northeast, there are borders with Bangladesh, Bhutan and Myanmar (Burma). The island nation of Sri Lanka lies off India’s far southern tip, while the remote Andaman and Nicobar Islands are relatively close to Myanmar and Indonesia.

 

What’s it like for tourists?

There’s no doubt about it, India will challenge the uninitiated Westerner. Indeed, it can seem almost designed to provide the most intense culture shock for the outsider. Its crowded cities teem with life, while its transport networks and infrastructure still lag far behind what visitors might be used to. However, once the visitor acclimatises to the sights, sounds and intensity of modern India, the country offers the kind of experiences the memories of which will last a lifetime. From the beaches of Goa to the mountains of the Himalayas, the rainforests of the tropics and the hustle and bustle of some of the world’s largest cities, India has it all.

India passport
Indian passport

As one of the cradles of human civilisation, India has a long history, meaning there’s an abundance of historical and architectural sights to take in. The country – especially in the north – boasts thousands of forts that bear testament to the empires and civilisations that have prevailed throughout the subcontinent. The Taj Mahal at Agra – built in the 17th century by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan as the tomb for his favourite wife – is arguably the most recognisable example, and is considered among the most beautiful buildings in the world. The country’s cultural traditions and diverse religious heritage are another draw, with plenty of visitors arriving on what might be termed spiritual journeys, while the many sites of religious significance – Hindu and Sikh temples, churches, mosques and more – inspire awe and wonder. Others want to experience the frenetic energy of the country’s markets and festivals – indeed, festivals are an almost daily fact of life around this vast nation. The country’s array of spices and flavours that define its cuisine have extended their influence far beyond its borders and are another major draw.

Adventurous tourists are also pulled to India by the towering peaks of the Himalayas, though much of this area is in Kashmir, where travel can be risky. Others are captivated by India’s miles and miles of golden sands that stretch north to sound on both coasts, with the state of Goa – formerly a Portuguese colony – arguably the centre of India’s beach tourism trade. Visitors also come to witness the country’s national parks and the wildlife that dwells therein. There’s no question that an adventurous spirit goes a long way when visiting India, but one thing is for sure, the memories and experiences that the country has to offer will always stay with those who come..

India
Me at the Taj Mahal, Agra

 

Indonesia flag

Indonesia

  • Official Name: Republic of Indonesia
  • Capital City: Jakarta
  • Population: 267,670,543
  • Language: Indonesian, more than 700 regional languages
  • Currency: Indonesian rupiah
  • Continent: Asia

What’s Indonesia like?

A nation of different people groups, diverse cultures and hundreds of different languages, Indonesia is a nation-state occupying thousands of islands across a vast archipelago in southeast Asia, a few of which it shares with other nations. One of the largest nations on the planet, with a population of nearly 270 million, Indonesia is a developing nation with a growing economy, heaving cities (especially its capital, Jakarta), but also traditional ways of life preserved in the many rural communities scattered about this patchwork of islands. Away from the cities, many parts of Indonesia remain poor, while some regions face civil unrest. Despite all this, a strong sense of Indonesian nationhood has developed since independence from the Dutch Empire, when the region was known as the Dutch East Indies. This huge country with its incredible diversity of peoples and cultures holds together and continues to develop. Most Indonesians are Muslims, and the national language is Indonesian. However, most people, particularly away from cities, will speak a local tongue such as Javanese, Sundanese, Acehnese, Balinese and hundreds more. The famous backpacker destination of Bali is unusual in Indonesia in that the population is majority Hindu rather than Muslim. In fact, Indonesia is the world’s largest Muslim country.

Indonesia map
Indonesia

The country is a fragile, fledgling but increasingly vibrant democracy that is stumbling its way out of the dark days of dictatorship under Suharto, whose policies encouraged economic growth, but under oppressive political conditions. In 2014, the country elected its first president from outside the elite cabal that had controlled it for most of its independent history, and the economy continues to flourish.

Much of the country, across most of the islands, is lush and mountainous, with incredible biodiversity. Natural disasters are a fact of life in Indonesia, where volcanoes and earthquakes are a threat to live. The Boxing Day 2004 earthquake and tsunami caused devastation on the island of Sumatra, almost completely destroying the city of Bandar Aceh. The capital city, Jakarta, on Java, is sinking, and the government has begun the process of building a new capital in East Kalimantan province on Borneo. The country’s large and growing population is causing significant environmental problems in this biodiverse nation, leading to deforestation, soil erosion and pollution problems that sometimes impact on neighbouring nations.

One cool thing about Indonesia

Despite its relatively small size, 140 million residents squeeze onto the island of Java, making it the most populous island in the world. The island includes the capital, Jakarta. The population of this one small island is about equal to that of the whole of Russia.

One sad thing about Indonesia

The Boxing Day earthquake and tsunami of 2004 killed an estimated 230,000 people across seven countries, and the worst affected was Indonesia – specifically the province of Aceh and its capital, Bandar Aceh. Upper estimates suggest almost 170,000 Indonesians died, mostly in this region, and many more were displaced from completely destroyed settlements.

Neighbours Textbox
Spread over 17,000 islands across 1,904,569 square kilometres (735,358 square miles) of southeast Asia, Indonesia inevitably has plenty of neighbours. Let’s start with the ones with which it shares islands: on Borneo, the country has a long border with the provinces of Sabah and Sarawak in Malaysia; at the far eastern end of the archipelago, the country shares the island of New Guinea roughly equally with Papua New Guinea; while the small island of Timor has been shared between Indonesia and East Timor since the latter became independent in 1999.
The Straits of Malacca separate the island of Sumatra from peninsular Malaysia, while Singapore is also nearby. The country shares the island of Borneo with Brunei, but the two countries do not have a border, as they are kept apart by Malaysian territory. In the northeast, Indonesian Borneo and Sulawesi are separated from Mindanao island in the Philippines by the Celebes Sea, while northern Australia lies to the south, across the Timor Sea.

 

What’s it like for tourists?

As you’d expect from a country spread out across so many islands, Indonesia caters for all manner of tourist experiences. Backpacking is big in Indonesia, especially on the island of Bali, arguably the country’s best-known tourist hotspot, where beaches, nightlife and hedonism are the order of the day. The country’s biodiversity means that its rainforests are a huge draw, where people come to see national parks and reserves for animals including orangutans, elephants, tigers and the komodo dragon, while offshore, the country’s waters are a wonderland for divers. Indonesia features the world’s largest volcanic lake at Lake Toba, which offers stunning views and hiking opportunities for the particularly adventurous.

Indonesia passport
Indonesian passport

Culturally, the country is famous for festivals and traditional cultural events that fascinate visitors, while temples and religious sites abound. The major cities can be heavily polluted and smog-covered, especially Jakarta, but they are still a draw, offering the usual cultural sites, nightlife and urban amenities. With so much territory spread out over so many islands, it is no surprise that Indonesia has so much to offer, and as a growing economy in a part of the world crisscrossed by backpackers, gap year travellers and tourists from all corners of the globe, the country is an increasingly significant tourism proposition. The big question for Indonesia is how it will reconcile its growing tourist trade – and its economic development in general – with commitments to protect the environment.

Indonesia
Ulun Danu Beratan Temple, Lake Bratan, Bali

 

Iran flag

Iran

ایران
  • Official Name: Islamic Republic of Iran
  • Capital City: Tehran
  • Population: 83,183,741
  • Language: Persian (also known as Farsi), regional and minority languages
  • State Religion: Shia Islam
  • Currency: Rial
  • Continent: Asia

What’s Iran like?

The behemoth of the Middle East with over 80million inhabitants, enigmatic Iran is a nation of complexities, where parliamentary politics meets authoritarianism, ethnic and religious diversity intermingle under a strictly-enforced state faith, and one of the world’s largest young populations strives to build a future under the gerontocratic rule of the mullahs. With a long and endlessly fascinating history in which Iran has been a huge influence on the region and beyond, Iranians are rightly patriotic and proud of their national identity. Since the Islamic Revolution of 1979, Iran’s relations with the West have been deeply antagonistic, with periods of high tension, but this would be the wrong lens through which to see the country as a whole. The country is home to an ancient civilisation and has been the centre of several great empires that spread far beyond the borders of modern Iran. Today, Iran is a middle power that strongly influences other states in the Middle East. International sanctions mean the economy has struggled to fulfil its potential, and poverty is widespread, especially outside the big cities. The country has a controversial nuclear programme which it claims is peaceful, but which is often feared by outsiders to be aimed at developing a nuclear weapons capability. Iran is a major oil and gas producer, but international sanctions mean much of the potential wealth this could generate has failed to materialise.

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Iran

The landscape is dominated by two huge mountain ranges – the Alborz in the north and the Zagros in the west. Most major populations centres sit in valleys or plains between these major mountains chains. Iran is one of the most mountainous countries in the world, but it becomes increasingly desolate and desert-like in the southeast. The country has a long coastline on the Persian Gulf and Gulf of Oman, and has a strategic position at the Strait of Hormuz, a major global shipping route. Iranians themselves are mostly ethnic Persians who follow Shia Islam, but the country has significant minority ethnic groups and religions.

One cool thing about Iran

Evidence suggests that the first postal mail system may have been invented in Iran back in 550BC.

One sad thing about Iran

The country is the most earthquake-prone in the world, and in 2003, a quake struck around the city of Bam in central Iran that killed 30,000 people.

Neighbours Textbox
In the northwest, Iran borders Turkey, Armenia and Azerbaijan, including the Azerbaijani exclave of Nakhchivan. Part of its border with Azerbaijan-proper is with the breakaway ethnic-Armenian republic of Artsakh, which is internationally recognised as being part of Azerbaijan. In the northeast is a long border through the desert with Turkmenistan, while the country’s eastern frontier is shared with Afghanistan and Pakistan. To the west is a long border with Iraq.
The country is separated from Kuwait by Iraq’s narrow al-Faw peninsula, while Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates are a short distance across the Persian Gulf. Oman is fairly nearby across the Gulf of Oman, while the Strait of Hormuz separates Iran from Oman’s Musandam exclave.


What’s it like for tourists?

You might assume that Iran – with its authoritarian regime and international pariah status – is closed off, but that is far from the case. Iran receives many tourists, and although visa application processes can be cumbersome, there is nothing to prevent visitors from going to Iran. Unfortunately for Americans, Brits and Canadians, these nationals can’t travel freely around the country, instead needing an approved guide at all times. However, all other nationals are free to roam (with certain restrictions) once they’ve been issued a visa.

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Iranian passport

As the historical centre of some of humanity’s greatest civilisations, Iran has been left with a legacy of sites of historical interest and religious significance, especially to followers of Shia Islam. Vast ancient city complexes reveal the scale and power of the dynasties that have ruled over huge swathes of territory and peoples. Meanwhile, the array of different landscapes attracts visitors to the country’s natural beauty, especially the ski resorts of the mountains, one of which is among the highest in the world. Iran also possesses islands in the Persian Gulf that are major draw to Iranian tourists and have less stringent entry requirements for outsiders than the mainland. Persian hospitality is world-renowned and visitors can expect a warm welcome from the Iranian people.

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The holy city of Qom

 

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Iraq

اَلْعِرَاق(al-ʿirāq) عێراق‎ (Êraq)
  • Official Name: Republic of Iraq
  • Capital City: Baghdad
  • Population: 38,433,600
  • Language: Arabic, Kurdish, regional and minority languages
  • Official Religion: Islam
  • Currency: Iraqi dinar
  • Continent: Asia

What’s Iraq like?

The borders of modern-day Iraq encompass the fertile plains between the mighty Tigris and Euphrates rivers that are one of the cradles of civilisation, and the cities of this region – particularly Baghdad – have played a major role in humanity’s cultural, religious and scientific development. The land between these great rivers was known as Mesopotamia and gave rise to some of the earliest and most powerful civilisations. The modern Iraqi nation-state emerged in the 20th century and has suffered under the brutal dictatorship of Saddam Hussein, an eight-year-long war with Iran in the 1980s, the Gulf War of 1991 and the American-led invasion of 2003. Since the removal of the Saddam Hussein regime, the country has been perennially unstable and racked by conflict, with parts of the country falling into the control of militant groups.

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Iraq

Most Iraqis are Arab Muslims, with the Shia forming a majority and the Sunni a significant minority. In the northeast are the Kurds, who have a high degree of autonomy in the territory they control. Other much smaller minority groups include the Turkomens and Assyrians. Iraqi Kurdistan has consistently been the most stable part of the country since 2003. The country possesses large oil reserves, but international sanctions and perpetual war and instability mean that many Iraqis live in poverty and suffer from poor public services. While the central region between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers is fertile, much of the rest of Iraq is sparsely populated desert. However, the northeast is mountainous. Summers in Iraq record some of the hottest temperatures anywhere in the world, with 50c (122f) a regular occurrence.

One cool thing about Iraq

The world’s first written story – the Epic of Gilgamesh – was written circa 1800BC and is about a ruler who fought to save an ancient Mesopotamian city in what is today Iraq.

One sad thing about Iraq

Suffering and tragedy are a daily fact of life, and there are many historical events that could apply here. One example would be the tragedy of the Marsh Arabs, who Saddam Hussein punished in 1991 for rebelling against him by draining their lands, which permanently altered their way of life and resulted in huge ecological consequences.

Neighbours Textbox
In the north is a contentious border with Turkey, while in the east is a long border with Iran. In the southeast, the country shares a border through the desert with Kuwait, while in the south and southwest is another long frontier, this time with Saudi Arabia.
In the remote far west, Iraq borders Jordan, while there is a long border with Syria in the northwest in one of the world’s most dangerous and volatile regions.


What’s it like for tourists?

With so much history and culture, Iraq could and hopefully one day will be a captivating destination. However, most governments advise their citizens not to travel to Iraq for non-essential reasons due to the security situation. The threat of kidnapping and terrorist attacks remains high and could strike at any moment almost anywhere. The vast majority of visits to Iraq are made by Shia Muslim pilgrims heading for the country’s holy sites. Beyond that, there is little infrastructure for tourism, especially outside of Baghdad. Checkpoints make moving around Iraq extremely difficult and time consuming. Nevertheless, the Kurdish region, which is almost entirely self-governing, has achieved a higher degree of stability and is considered safer than the rest of the country. Most Western tourists who decide to visit Iraq head for this region.

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Iraqi passport

In other circumstances, ancient cities such as Babylon, Ur, Ctesiphon and Hatra would teem with tourists, but decades of dictatorship and conflict have had the dual effect of discouraging visitors and damaging heritage. In the future, it may be that these places will no longer seem so off-limits and visitors may be free to explore the cradle of civilisation, but for now, they remain at the mercy of the security situation. Shia Muslims will no doubt continue to descend in large numbers on the holy cities of Najaf and Karbala, but even this activity can be unsafe. Visitors to Kurdistan will find a more stable atmosphere and will have the chance to experience Kurdish culture amidst the mountains of northwestern Iraq.

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Baghdad

 

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Ireland

Éire
  • Official Name: Ireland
  • Capital City: Dublin
  • Population: 4,921,500
  • Language: English, Irish
  • Currency: Euro
  • Continent: Europe

What’s Ireland like?

Known as the Emerald Isle for its lush green landscape, the island of Ireland lies to the west of Britain in the North Atlantic off the coast of northwestern Europe. Despite its small size, Irish culture and traditions are familiar to millions around the world and have had an influence well beyond the island’s shores. The island itself is currently partitioned between the sovereign state often referred to as the Republic of Ireland – which this item is about – and the six northeastern counties known as Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom and will dealt with in the UK entry. The partition is a legacy of the island’s long history with Great Britain and settlement by people from Britain. The republic regularly scores highly on measures of quality of life and human development, but the 2008 financial crash caused substantial economic trauma that the country is still recovering from.

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Ireland

The Irish people are known for their friendliness and unique sense of humour, as well as their cultural traditions. Irish pubs and Guinness beer can be found throughout the world and are symbols of Irish identity. English is the main language in Ireland, but a minority of citizens still speak the Irish language – indeed, in areas known as Gaeltachta, Irish is usually the primary language. Major historical events that have shaped Irish identity also include the Irish Famine and the War of Independence that aimed to throw off control from Britain. The country has its own traditional sports including Gaelic football and hurling, while rugby union and football (soccer) are also very popular. In recent years, the country’s economic success – especially as it has begun to recover from the catastrophe of 2008 – has seen it become a desirable destination for immigration, with Dublin in particular becoming increasingly diverse. Irish towns and cities are often attractive and well-kept, while the Irish countryside features a long, spectacular coastline, mountainous regions, bogs and rolling green fields. The lush green landscape has given Ireland a strong, successful farming sector.

One cool thing about Ireland

The country has won the Eurovision Song Contest seven times – more than any other participating nation. However, its last victory was in 1996.

One sad thing about Ireland

The Great Famine (sometimes referred to as the Potato Famine) of 1845-1849 had a huge impact on Ireland, with one million dying and another million being forced to emigrate. The population has never recovered to pre-Famine levels.

Neighbours Textbox
Ireland’s nearest neighbour is the United Kingdom. The two countries share a land border on the island of Ireland, separating the sovereign state from Northern Ireland, a part of the United Kingdom. To the east is Great Britain, with Scotland to the northeast and England and Wales to the east. As well as this, the self-governing British Crown Dependency of the Isle of Man is nearby in the Irish Sea.

 

What’s it like for tourists?

Tourist infrastructure in Ireland is very well developed and the country is a major tourist destination. The pubs and bars of Dublin throng with visitors from all around the world, despite the astronomical drinks prices! Other towns and cities are much smaller than the capital, but they still pull in tourists to their pubs and charming centres. The Irish welcome is one of the warmest and friendliest anywhere in the world, and many visitors, particular from North America, arrive to investigate the land of their roots.

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Irish Passport

As well as the people and the pubs, Ireland is also beautiful, with large areas of unspoilt countryside, breathtaking coastal views and excellent walking and hiking opportunities, though the weather can never be relied upon! The Wild Atlantic Way is a scenic drive down Ireland’s Atlantic west coast, from Donegal to County Cork, and takes in sheer cliffs, mountain vistas, sea air and traditional Irish-speaking communities. The land is also dotted with sites of historical interest, from castles and forts to scenes of significant battles. Despite its small size and high level of development, there’s plenty of adventure to be had on the Emerald Isle.

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County Donegal

 

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Israel

יִשְׂרָאֵל‎ (Yisra’el) إِسْرَائِيل‎ (Isrāʼīl)
  • Official Name: State of Israel
  • Capital City: Jerusalem
  • Population: 9,187,200
  • Language: Hebrew, Arabic
  • Official Religion: Judaism
  • Currency: New shekel
  • Continent: Asia

What’s Israel like?

This strip of Levantine land on the shores of the eastern Mediterranean is the centre of one of humanity’s most intractible conflicts – a land of ancient history populated today by several people groups, but principally by Jews and Arabs. It is the world’s only majority Jewish state, but has a large Arab Muslim minority as well as smaller groups of other faiths and ethnicities. The modern state of Israel came into existence in 1948, but the land on which the state was formed has been populated by different people groups since ancient times and is sacred to the world’s Jews, Muslims and Christians. This melting pot of faiths and ethnicities has been mired in conflict to varying degrees ever since the state was declared, and the building of Jewish settlements on the West Bank remains controversial. Israel is also frequently criticised for its policies towards the Palestinians. Other issues include the final status of Jerusalem, the Golan Heights, and rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip. On the other hand, Israel is an established democracy with high standards of living and a reputation for investment in research and development that have helped create a successful economy. Arabs living within Israel are full Israeli citizens and political parties representing Arab interests sit in the Knesset – Israel’s parliament.

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Israel

Israel is a small country in the region of the Middle East known as the Levant. Much of it is desert, and summer temperatures inland can get very hot indeed. However, the coastal strip is cooled somewhat by the presence of the Mediterranean. The country is home to some of the world’s oldest and most historically significant settlements, with important religious sites, winding allies and tight streets, not least in the bustling capital, Jerusalem. Meanwhile, the coastal city of Tel Aviv is the heart of liberal Israel, a city of gleaming towers, pristine beaches and teeming nightlife.

One cool thing about Israel

Perhaps it’s not surprising in a country with so much history, but Israel has more museums per head of the population than any other country in the world.

One sad thing about Israel

Plenty of people – Jewish, Arab, Druze and others – have experienced trauma and strife in this much-fought over slice of the Middle East. Picking a single fact out might seem one-sided, so perhaps the mere fact that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has proven so enduring and has wrought so much suffering should stand on its own as the saddest thing about this region.

Neighbours Textbox
Many of Israel’s border areas are, understandably, off-limits to visitors with a major security presence in place. In the north, the country borders Lebanon, while in the northeast is the disputed Golan Heights, controlled by Israel and claimed by Syria.
In the east is Jordan, while in the southwest, the country borders the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt. Israel-proper also borders the West Bank, which contains both Jewish settlements and Palestinian-administered territory, and the Gaza Strip, controlled by the Palestinian militant Hamas organisation.

 

What’s it like for tourists?

The answer to this question differs depending on the security situation, but at the time of writing, most visitors to Israel encounter no trouble. Some outsiders might get a culture shock from the sight of so much security infrastructure, but this is the day-to-day reality for ordinary Israelis and is more mundane than it might appear. Citizens of countries that don’t have relations with or don’t recognise Israel won’t be able to get in, and evidence of travel to many of these countries will prevent tourists from being admitted to Israel. For others, the country is open and is well adjusted to receiving visitors, though airport security will seem more stringent than in many other countries.

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Israeli Passport

Once in, visitors are spoiled for choice. The city of Jerusalem, holy to Jews, Christians and Muslims, is a hotbed of history and sites of historical and religious significance. On the other hand, Tel Aviv is Israel’s hedonistic beach and party capital, with a world reknowned nightlife scene. The Dead Sea – famous for its properties that allow bathers to float on the surface – is a major draw and can be accessed from Israel and the West Bank. The country’s small size and well-developed transport infrastructure mean it’s easy to get around, from the mountains of the north to the barren deserts in the south and the resort town of Eilat on Israel’s short strip of Red Sea coast.

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Jerusalem

 

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Italy

Italia
  • Official Name: Italian Republic
  • Capital City: Rome
  • Population: 60,317,116
  • Language: Italian (numerous dialects and regional languages exist)
  • Currency: Euro
  • Continent: Europe

What’s Italy like?

The boot-shaped Italian peninsula gave birth to one of the greatest empires in human history and has historically been home to numerous people groups and cultures. A hub of enlightenment thought and philosophy, Italy is where the Renaissance began, and it was also here that the Catholic faith emerged. However, for much of its history, the land we now know as Italy lacked a single common identity, with various city-states and powers holding sway across different parts of the peninsula and islands that today make up Italy. As a result of this, Italy is diverse, with a wide variety of dialects and minority languages, and strong loyalty to its regions. While northern Italy is a hub for high culture, finance, fashion and industry, southern Italy is poorer, more rural and less developed, which leads to tension and even separatist sentiment among some. Despite these regional inequalities, the country nevertheless has one of the world’s largest economies, with a high life expectance and a lifestyle that is the envy of many around the world. Italians are known for their vibrant culture, passion, artistic flair, design and, of course, their world famous cuisine.

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Italy

As well as the peninsula, Italy also includes numerous islands, including Sicily and Sardinia, which both have their own languages and distinctive local cultures. In the far north are the Italian Alps, below which is the Italian plain, home to cities such as Milan, Verona, Bergamo and Venice. This is Italy’s most economically important region. The Appennine mountain chain runs down the centre of the country, while the far south becomes more arid. Anywhere in Italy can get hot during the summer, though coastal areas are often tempered by sea breezes. Winters are cool in the north and mild further south. The long Italian coastline features spectacular cliffs and pristine beaches, with colourful traditional villages clinging to the hills as they rise from the sea.

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Florence

Some of the biggest challenges Italy faces include the wide gap between the richer north and poorer south, separatism in some regions, the influx of migrants crossing from north Africa and arriving in southern Italy, pollution – especially in the northern plains, political volatility and economic stagnation. Despite these problems, Italy can boast high living standards and a culture admired around the world.

One cool thing about Italy

There are 55 UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Italy, the most of any country in the world, a reflection of its status as a cultural and historical powerhouse.

One sad thing about Italy

The country is one of Europe’s most seismically active, and earth tremors are common. There have been many damaging quakes over the years, with the most recent major event being the 2009 earthquake centred on L’Aquila in central Italy, which killed over 300 people and saw the collapse of numerous buildings in a region where many structures are not conditioned to withstand major tremors.

Neighbours Textbox
In the northwest is Italy’s border with France, while the microstate of Monaco is also not far away along the French coast. Italy shares mountainous northern frontiers with Switzerland and Austria, while Slovenia is to the northeast.
The island of Sardinia lies to the immediate south of the French island of Corsica, while the Adriatic Sea separates Italy from Croatia, Montenegro, Albania and a tiny strip of coastline belonging to Bosnia and Herzegovina. Malta is due south of Sicily, with Tunisia further away to the southwest.

 

What’s it like for tourists?

The fifth most-visited country in the world, Italy is a global tourism hotspot thanks to its history, culture, cuisine, natural beauty and remarkable 55 UNESCO World Heritage sites. From the ski resorts of the Alps in the far north through cosmopolitan cities like Milan and Turin, the canals of Venice and the Renaissance splendour of Florence and the ancient history of Rome, down to traditional villages of the far south and Sicily, Italy arguably has something for everyone.

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Italian passport

Italy’s great cities combine all the vibrance and energy of modern European conurbations, but with fascinating history and breathtaking architecture, while its long coast offers stunning sea views dotted with small colourful villages that seem to cling to cliff faces. Rural Italy is still very traditional, while the cuisine and wines of the country are among the world’s most famous and are not to be missed. Italy is a land where tradition and modernity truly meet, where the visitor can experience the hustle and bustle of the markets and shops of the big city, then head into the countryside to find small sleepy traditional villages or tiny fishing communities.

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Cefalú, Sicily

 

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Ivory Coast

Côte d’Ivoire
  • Official Name: Republic of Côte d’Ivoire
  • Capital City: Yamoussoukro (political); Abidjan (economic)
  • Largest City: Abidjan
  • Population: 23,740,424
  • Language: French, regional languages
  • Currency: West African CFA franc
  • Continent: Africa

What’s Ivory Coast like?

A former French colony in west Africa, Ivory Coast once constituted numerous kingdoms and states, but is today a presidential republic that is a diverse mix of ethnicities, language groups, religions and cultures that has seen its fair share of instability over recent years. For much of its history as an independent nation, Ivory Coast has built a reputation for relative peace and harmony in comparison to other countries in the region, but religious strife and even civil wars have flared up from time to time, the most recent being in 2010-2011 after a disputed presidential election. Like many other west African states, Ivory Coast was heavily impacted by the slave trade, and as the name suggests, the country was also a major centre of the ivory trade. The country’s ethnic and religious diversity mean that there is no one dominant culture, with different art forms, musical styles, cuisines and festivals to be found in different regions. While French is the national language, different people groups tend to speak their own native language.

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Ivory Coast

Much of the country’s economic activity is centred on the largest city, Abidjan, on the Atlantic coast, while rural areas are dominated by various forms of agriculture. Much of the country is flat or made up of rolling plains, rising gradually the further one gets from the coast, while there are hillier regions in the northwest. The climate is warm to hot all year round, with marked dry and wet seasons. Inland, the country is generally more arid, especially in the far north.

Although the country is generally known in English as “Ivory Coast”, the government has stated that its name in English is the same as in French – “Côte d’Ivoire.”

One cool thing about Ivory Coast

The country’s political capital, Yamoussoukro, is home to the world’s largest church. The Basilica of Our Lady of Peace, at an area of 30,000 square metres, is even bigger than St Peter’s in the Vatican City.

One sad thing about Ivory Coast

The Second Ivorian Civil War of 2010-2011 left around 3,000 people dead and shattered the country’s economy. The rebuilding process is ongoing.

Neighbours Textbox
The country borders five other west African nations. In the northwest is a winding frontier with Guinea, while in the north, the country borders Mali and Burkina Faso. In the east is the border with Ghana, while to the southwest is Liberia.

 

What’s it like for tourists?

The instability brought about by the civil war, combined with the general threat of armed groups in the region and the country’s poverty have served to make Ivory Coast a fairly challenging place to visit. However, the return of political stability after the Second Civil War has seen an increase in the number of visitors, and there is certainly plenty to see here.

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Ivorian passport

Some of the main attraction in Ivory Coast are the country’s long sandy beaches, which in places are rather unspoiled and luxurious, plus traditional villages and the local culture therein, and opportunities for safari and wildlife spotting. The city of Abidjan is the country’s most cosmopolitan urban centre with Ivory Coast’s main nightlife scene, though caution is required here. The world’s largest church in Yamoussoukro is a must-see while in west Africa. UNESCO World Heritage Sites include the former colonial town of Grand-Bassam, several national parks, and the towering Mount Nimba.

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The Basilica of Our Lady of Peace, Yamoussoukro –
RyansWorld / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)

 

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Jamaica

Jumieka
  • Official Name: Jamaica
  • Capital City: Kingston
  • Population: 2,890,299
  • Language: English, Jamaican Patois
  • Currency: Jamaican dollar
  • Continent: North America

What’s Jamaica like?

This small Caribbean island nation of almost three million people has had a cultural impact on the world that defies its diminutive size. Jamaica is the birthplace of reggae music and culture, as well as the Rastafari religion, and Jamaicans are renowned for their sporting prowess, particularly in athletics and cricket. Its culture and society is vibrant and unique, yet at the same time quintessentially and unmistakably Caribbean. Most Jamaicans speak English, a legacy of the island’s status as a former British colony, but there is also a Jamaican patois. The majority of Jamaicans are descended from Africans brought over to work on plantations during colonial rule, but there are also small numbers of Chinese and Indian descendants of indentured workers, and even a handful of white Jamaicans.

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Jamaica

An upper middle-income country, modern Jamaica is heavily reliant on the tourist trade, especially in the luxury and cruise sectors. Since independence in 1962, the country has struggled with violent crime, especially in the larger urban areas, though in recent years there has been some improvement in this area. While the country is moderately well-off, poverty does exist. The island’s position in the Caribbean Sea exposes it to hot, tropical conditions all year-round, with occasional hurricanes. This climate has led to a diverse array of plant, animal and marine life. The Jamaican interior is lush and mountainous, while the coast is lower-lying and ringed by sandy beaches and deep-blue Caribbean waters.

One cool thing about Jamaica

Author Ian Fleming bought land in Jamaica and wrote his first ten James Bond books here. He called his home Goldeneye.

One sad thing about Jamaica

The country has one of the highest murder rates in the world, with much of this crime being linked to the ‘Yardies’, local criminal gangs.

Neighbours Textbox
Jamaica is an island nation with no land borders, but it does have some near-neighbours. In the northwest, across roughly 200 miles of the Caribbean Sea, are the Cayman Islands, a British overseas territory. To the immediate north is Cuba, while Haiti is about 130 miles to the east.
Situated between Jamaica and Haiti is Navassa Island, a tiny uninhabited island claimed by Haiti but controlled by the United States.

 

What’s it like for tourists?

As with most of the Caribbean, many tourists come to Jamaica to find a slice of paradise, but they are also drawn by the country’s unique culture and interesting history. Many visitors arrive on cruise ships and go directly to resorts, while others arrive on package holidays, often aimed at the luxury end of the market. Jamaican resorts are well known for their high-end villas and private tropical beaches, and the country is among the leading destinations for honeymooners. Nevertheless, there is plenty to experience beyond the resorts. Fans of reggae make the pilgrimage to Jamaica, particularly to Trenchtown in the capital, Kingston, where reggae and rastafarian culture were born, as well as Nine Mile, where Bob Marley was born and is buried.

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Jamaican passport

Jamaica’s mountainous interior is renowned for walking and hiking, as well as its awe-inspiring scenery and wildlife. Many visitors head for the famous Dunn’s River Falls, a  cascading 600m waterfall that runs off into the Caribbean Sea. Jamaican cuisine is famous for jerk seasoning and has a reputation for being hot and spicy, but it is also diverse, with many flavours, and is always delicious. Jamaicans themselves are renowned for the warmth and friendliness of their welcome.

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Dunn’s River Falls, Ochos Rios –
Banja-Frans Mulder / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)

 

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Japan

日本国 (Nippon-koku or Nihon-koku)
  • Official Name: Japan
  • Capital City: Tokyo
  • Population: 126,150,000
  • Language: Japanese
  • Currency: Japanese yen
  • Continent: Asia

What’s Japan like?

An archipelago stretching from the cold waters of the Sea of Okhotsk to the tropical climes of the Philippine Sea, Japan is home to an ancient, unique culture, world famous traditions, the world’s largest conurbation centred on Tokyo, a cohesive society and one of the world’s most innovative, modern and powerful economies. Japan’s culture, from its long tradition of martial arts to its more recent innovations in videogames, comic books, cartoons and pop music – as well as its world renowned cuisine – have gained large followings around the world, all while Japan’s rulers have sought to maintain a high degree of isolation from external influences.

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Japan

After World War II, with the Japanese Empire militarily defeated and its people reeling from the atomic bombs that were dropped on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan set about a programme of rapid development and economic growth that transformed it into a highly-developed first world nation. Today, Japan is a byword for quality electronics, while many of the world’s biggest and most innovative companies are Japanese. The country’s automotive industry exports reliable motor vehicles around the world. Meanwhile, Japan’s transport system, particularly its system of bullet trains, or shinkansen, are the envy of the world. Japanese people have the highest life expectancies in the world, but they are also faced with one of the world’s lowest birth rates. In recent years, economic growth has been stagnant. Organised crime is a problem in Japan, but in general crime rates are remarkably low for a large industrialised nation.

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Tokyo

Japan sits on the Pacific Ring of Fire and is highly susceptible to natural disasters, from potentially devastating earthquakes to tsunamis and powerful typhoons. To counter this, Japanese building standards are among the most stringent in the world, with most buildings designed to withstand substantial tremor activity. Nevertheless, in the most severe instances, large numbers of lives are lost, and this is a threat that the Japanese simply have to live with. The country has a large population, including the largest urban agglomeration in the world, yet much of the country is mountainous and heavily forested in places. Most Japanese are crammed into cities that sit in valleys and face the coast. Winters are cold and snowy in the far north, particularly on Hokkaido, while in the far south, a more subtropical climate prevails. Summers are warm and humid everywhere in Japan.

One cool thing about Japan

The world’s shortest escalator can be found in a department store in Kawasaki. It rises a mere 83cm and features just five steps.

One sad thing about Japan

The 1945 atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki brought about Japan’s surrender at the end of the Second World War, but they also killed somewhere between 130,000 to 226,000 people, the majority of whom were ordinary civilians.

Neighbours Textbox
Japan is a nation made up of islands in east Asia, and has no land borders. The mainland of Russia lies to the northwest, while the Russian island of Sakhalin lies to the north. In the northeast, Russia’s Kuril Islands chain stretches north from Hokkaido up to the Russian Kamchatka peninsula. Japan claims these islands.
In the far south, Japan’s Ryukyu Islands chain reaches as far as Taiwan, while China lies across the East China Sea to the southwest. North Korea and South Korea lie to the west, across the Sea of Japan.

 

What’s it like for tourists?

For those with an active interest in Japanese customs, traditions and culture, a trip to Japan is often seen as the adventure of a lifetime. Visitors are mesmerised by the bright lights and technological advancement of the major cities. Historically, Japan was a closed-off country that received few visitors, but the modern nation is among the 20 most-visited in the world. The country is served by some of the most futuristic infrastructure on Earth, from unique and sometimes eccentric hotels and restaurants to its efficient and punctual transport network. However, it certainly isn’t all about modernity in Japan. This is an ancient culture that maintains numerous longstanding traditions, many of which can seem daunting and impenetrable to outsiders. Away from the hustle and bustle of the urban jungle are sites of religious significance, especially in Buddhism and the Shinto faith, including beautiful temples.

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Japanese passport

Japanese cuisine is world famous and the country has some of the most prestigious restaurants in the world. Rice and noodles are staples, while fish and seafood are major sources of protein, along with soybeans. Food is generally eaten with chopsticks, and there are many customs and unspoken rules to be taken account of while dining out in Japan.

A mountainous country, Japanese scenery is often spectacular, and the country has numerous ski resorts, though most visitors come from inside Japan. The country is also famous for its beautiful colourful gardens, often resplendant with cherry blossoms. One of Japan’s most popular attractions is Mount Fuji, an active volcano and the seventh-highest peak on Earth, which is visible from Tokyo on clear days.

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Mount Fuji

 

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Jordan

لأردن (Al-ʾUrdunn)
  • Official Name: Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan
  • Capital City: Amman
  • Population: 10,407,793
  • Language: Arabic
  • Official Religion: Islam
  • Currency: Jordanian dinar
  • Continent: Asia

What’s Jordan like?

An island of stability in a volatile region, Jordan is one of the most successful modern Arab states and has largely avoided the turmoil and conflict that have afflicted its near neighbours. In turn, this has left it one of the Arab world’s more prosperous economies outside of the oil-rich Gulf states. Once part of the Ottoman Empire, Jordan became an emirate under British protection after the First World War, before gaining independence in 1946. It has been ruled by the Hashemite dynasty ever since. The country is home to large communities of refugees from war-torn nations nearby, especially Palestinians, many of whom have lived in Jordan for decades. Indeed, the descendants of Palestinian refugees now outnumber the original Jordanian people. More recently, refugees from conflicts in Iraq and Syria have found their way to Jordan. The instability of the wider region and the need to absorb so many refugees has often hindered Jordan’s economic development, but the country remains broadly socially cohesive.

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Jordan

Tourism is a major industry in Jordan, and the country has numerous sites that draw large numbers of visitors. Health tourism is also common, owing to Jordan’s well-resourced healthcare system. Most Jordanians live around the capital, Amman and along the stretch of highway that cuts south from Amman towards the Red Sea. However, there are nomadic and semi-nomadic Bedouin communities in the Jordanian desert. The country is largely arid, though it is named after the Jordan river which runs along its western border. There is a very short strip of coastline on the Gulf of Aqaba, and the country has a shoreline on the Dead Sea. The country experiences long, hot summers, especially in the desert, while winters are generally mild. Most rain falls during the winter.

One cool thing about Jordan

Earth’s lowest point on dry land is in Jordan at the shore of the Dead Sea (which is actually a saline lake) at an incredible 420m (1,378ft) below sea level.

One sad thing about Jordan

Though terrorist attacks are rare in Jordan, in 2005 three major hotels in the capital, Amman, were bombed, resulting in 57 deaths and 115 injuries.

Neighbours Textbox
In the west, Jordan borders Israel and the West Bank, while in the north is the frontier with Syria. Jordan’s northeastern border with Iraq is a remote desert area, while the country’s longest border is in the southeast and the south with Saudi Arabia.
The Sinai peninsula in Egypt lies a short distance across the Gulf of Aqaba on the Red Sea from Jordan.

 

What’s it like for tourists?

With little in the way of natural resources, tourism is Jordan’s lifeblood, and fortunately the country has plenty to offer. Not only that, but the country’s relative stability makes it one of the safest destinations in the Arab world. The country abounds with Roman architecture and sites linked to Roman civilisation, but undoubtedly the most famous attraction in Jordan is the ancient city of Petra, a fully-preserved Nabatean city carved into the pink rocks of the Jordanian desert. This spectacular location has been used in Hollywood films, most notably Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and is a UNESCO World Heritage site, as well as one of the “New Seven Wonders of the World.”

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Jordanian passport

The city of Jerash is famous for its well-preserved Roman architecture, while Amman, a cosmpolitan and modern city, boasts the Temple of Hercules, an amphitheatre and a citadel, as well as some of the best shopping in the Middle East. The resort town of Aqaba on the Red Sea is a major watersports destination, while the Dead Sea is a must visit to experience the sensation of floating unaided on the water. The desert mountains of Wadi Rum feature some of the world’s most unique landscapes and are associated with TE Lawrence.

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Petra

 

So there we have it, part three out of the way at long last. Hopefully part four won’t be so long in the making, but I won’t be making any promises.

A week in the frozen north

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The passengers on the right-hand side of the aircraft have a fantastic view, apparently. The captain’s typically warm, authoritative voice comes over the PA system: “if you look out of the windows on the right, you’ll get a spectacular view of the Icelandic landmass.” I assume ‘Icelandic landmass’ just means Iceland. However, I’m sat on the left as we fly north toward Keflavík International Airport, which means I won’t get my first glimpse of our destination until we’re much closer to the ground. No matter – I have a pretty spectacular view anyway. Far below the Airbus A319, the choppy seascape inspires quiet awe as I observe the ice floes bobbing on the bitter North Atlantic waters. It’s late February, and although the temperature in the cabin is as comfortable as you’d expect, I feel cold as I take in that wintry oceanic scene. I stare out to the horizon, straining my eyes to see if I can make out Greenland in the distance – that vast glacial island nation of polar bears, a population of just 56,000 hardy souls and a national anthem called Nunarput Utoqqarsuanngoravit. I can’t. I’m sure we’d not need to fly much further west to bring it into view, but I’m happy to settle for Iceland at this stage.

And then I get to see it. Iceland – is there a country in the world with a more evocative name? The runway is lined with grey slush, some of which has encroached quite far towards the centre. And beyond, everything is white. Everything. In the fading light, I can only make out so much, but there’s no mistaking the sheer amount of snow. A few specks of dark rock are visible towards the coast, but otherwise, Iceland is white, buried under a winter’s worth of Arctic precipitation. I’m just not used to it. Of course, I fully expected it, but I suddenly begin to wonder if the boots I’ve bought are going to be sufficient. I feel like I’m embarking on an expedition, naive and underprepared. I’ll soon learn that it’s not the snow I need to be wary of, but the coating of packed ice, as smooth and slippery as a skating rink, from which no boot in the world could save me.

Keflavík airport to Reykjavík is one of the longest airport transfers I’ve ever been on, if not the longest. It was built by the Americans during the Second World War and went on to become the main point of entry to Iceland, despite being a good 90 minutes’ drive from the capital. The highway is relatively clear, but patches of ice and snow remain. The landscape looks pretty barren from what I can tell as the coach speeds along, making short work of the potentially treacherous roads thanks to its trusty winter tyres. Iceland is one of the most sparsely-populated countries in the world (there’s a good chance your home town or city has a bigger population) and this is brought home by the fact that we barely see a car or pass a building of any note until we reach Reykjavík’s outer suburbs, despite being on one of the country’s most important routes. One poor passenger – a woman in her 70s, I’d say – slips as she disembarks outside her hotel. At first I think she has broken her ankle, but she is then able to walk gingerly to the lobby. The look of anguish on her face suggests two things: her holiday to Iceland may well be ruined before it’s begun and I’d better be careful where I put my feet.

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The view from Centric Guesthouse room 13…

I’m the last of the party to be dropped off. My hotel – the appropriately named Centric Guesthouse – is on Lækjagata , right in the middle of Reykjavík . The perfect location. I allow myself to feel the chill in the air for the first time, to breathe it in. So this is Iceland. The streets and footpaths of the city centre are, for the most part, mercifully clear of ice and snow, but anywhere that doesn’t receive heavy vehicle or foot traffic is covered in pure, white fluff. The street lights shine down, their beams reflecting back up, giving the city a strange, almost otherworldly amber glow. I get to my room and take in the view of downtown Reykjavík – of the attractive Menntaskólinn í Reykjavík , a sort of preparatory college for future university students, with its front lawn hidden beneath snow so deep you could belly-flop onto it and not make an indent, and featuring a flagpole without a flag (a common occurrence in Reykjavík , it turns out). I can see traditional Nordic houses on the hillside, juxtaposed with touristy-looking restaurants and pedestrians taking great care over where they walk, just in case. It’s different. I like it already.

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Althing – The Icelandic parliament, seen across Austurvöllur

My first morning in Iceland dawns bitterly cold. Tiny grains of snow blow about on a brutal wind, making one degree celsius feel more like minus ten. I’m booked on a walking tour of the city – a tour that runs in all weather conditions, all year round. A gaggle of frozen tourists – their eyes poking out from between hats pulled down low and scarves covering numbed mouths and noses – assembles in the middle of Austurvöllur, Reykjavík’s central square where the country’s parliament – Alþingi- is located. I reflect on how dainty it seems, a national legislature smaller than many local council buildings you’d find back home in the UK. This is not entirely surprising given that Iceland has a population roughly the same size as Coventry. Austurvöllur also features the city’s oldest church and several restaurants and bars. I will go on to become well acquainted with the burgers served at the imaginatively-named American Bar. Icelandic burgers are never too big, but they pack plenty of flavour. You also need to take out a mortgage to buy one.

The tour winds through the compact streets of central Reykjavík . There is little respite from the icy wind and I’m glad for my thermal socks, thick gloves and woollen jumper. I’m as Iceland-ready as anyone else in our group. I fall in love with the little houses that dot the city, as Nordic as they come, built from wood and painted in vibrant reds, greens and blues – perched on concrete foundations designed to hold them together during earth tremors. Iceland is one of the most geologically active places in the world, but its earthquakes are usually mild. We clamber through thick snow to the statue of Ingólfr Arnason – Reykjavík’s founder – positioned at the top of a hill from where one can see out over the bay to the peaks of Esja and down to the brand new concert and conference venue. In this exposed spot, my Southport Football Club scarf offers little protection to the flesh beneath it as the wind and hard pellets of snow blast their way in off the sea.

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The frozen surface of Tjörnin

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Frozen lakes don’t suit everyone

Relief from the force of the Icelandic winter comes in the shape of the Ráðhús – Reykjavík city hall – where our guide ushers us inside for a lesson on the city’s history and hands out liquorice. The most unpleasant of all the sugary treats, liquorice is inexplicably popular in Iceland. Indeed, I later learn that sweets (or candy, if you’re one of those people) are a big deal in Iceland. Children expect bags of the stuff as weekend treats. Adults aren’t much better. Paradoxically, Icelanders consume some of the highest quantities of sugar in the world, yet also manage to have one of the planet’s highest life expectancies. I choke down the foul tasting liquorice, apparently too British to decline on the basis that it turns my stomach, and observe the array of tourists and locals stomping their way across the frozen surface of Tjörnin, the urban lake that stretches from the Ráðhús to Reykjavík airport, where domestic flights take off and land. At the end of the tour, I consider taking the opportunity to walk on a frozen lake for the first time in my life, but I can picture the headlines after I put my foot in the wrong place and have to be rescued by whoever does Iceland’s rescuing: ‘Englishman is stupid’, or something to that effect. Later, I realise how stupid I really am when I see a group of teenage girls playing football on the lake, the goalkeeper throwing herself to the ground to make a succession of pretty good saves, none of them looking like they expect the ice to crack any time this side of the final whistle. The lake has been frozen since November. I’m not going to fall though it without applying a blowtorch to the ice or attempting to land an aircraft upon it.

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A sunny Hallgrimskírkja

To the east of Tjörnin and Ráðhús , a short walk past an array of souvenir shops, restaurants aimed squarely at the tourist trade and even a tiny, functioning prison, is Hallgrímskirkja, the city’s impressive, imposing Lutheran church. I find it on my first night and vow to return in the daylight. Icelandic churches tend to be modest affairs, built in the same charming, understated style that most of the houses are. But here in central Reykjavík stands one of the most striking churches I’ve ever seen, designed to evoke images of the country’s lava flows and visible for miles around. I don’t hesitate to fork out 900kr to share the lift to the top of the bell tower with nine excitable Americans, certain it will be worth the outlay. It is. The viewing area in the upper section of the bell tower offers panoramic views of the whole  of Reykjavík, far out to sea and to the mountainous interior. A ferocious wind – barely perceptible on the ground but raging at this altitude – threatens to liberate me of my iPhone and all pictorial evidence of my trip to Iceland. One day I might invest in a camera with a strap, but it might take the total destruction of my phone to convince me to do so. I feel inclined to spend the rest of the day up there, oblivious to the icy wind, happily watching Reykjavík going about its business far below. Plus, I’d get my 900kr’s worth.

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A view from the top

These days, the Reykjavík shoreline is dominated by Harpa, the gleaming new concert hall and cultural centre. In a nod to the centrality of the fishing industry to Iceland, the building is designed to resemble the scales of a fish and is quite widely acknowledged to have made a major contribution to the country’s cultural life since its completion in 2011. However, Harpa has had something of a fraught history and stands as a reminder of the folly of the Icelandic banking industry and its devastating crash in 2008. According to my tour guide, the building was originally not meant to cost the Icelandic taxpayer a penny (or a króna). The long-awaited dream of a world class concert venue would finally be realised through private funding at a time when the Icelandic economy was booming. State-of-the-art office buildings began to rise around Reykjavík, as fancy new homes and apartment buildings rose from the volcanic rock. The “UAE of the north” was bubbling along nicely. Harpa was to be the crowning glory, an indicator of Iceland’s prosperity and confidence in itself.

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Harpa concert hall and the mountains of Esja

The Icelanders I speak to about this period still seethe. 2008 was this tiny country’s “annus horribilis”. In Iceland, they call it the Kreppa. As the world economy tanked, the country’s banking system collapsed. It became apparent that the Icelandic boom was built on shifting sands, a ticking time bomb that would inevitably detonate. Construction work across the country came to a halt as brand new apartment blocks either stood empty or were abandoned before completion. Harpa went from being a sign of the country’s ambition and wealth to a scar on the seafront, little more than a giant hole in the ground, about which nothing could be done. I get the feeling that this period in Icelandic history was a profound shock to the nation’s sense of itself. In a country without much of a history of political scandal or protest, it had been easy to pretend that the rules of the world didn’t apply here – that somehow Iceland was better. Now, the people had woken up to reality. They were confronted with corruption and betrayal, the consequences of which were profound and even brought Iceland into conflict with other countries. One tour guide I meet tells me of her passionate desire to join the European Union, believing it the only way to guarantee a prosperous future for Iceland. Another, slightly older lady, recoils at the idea, convinced EU membership would sink the country again and increase the risks of future economic strife. The Kreppa seems to have left Icelanders less sure of their place in the world and less confident in their nation’s politics.

Things are different now. Famously, Iceland’s response to this crisis was to jail its bankers. Public demonstrations brought down the government, and Icelanders are now expert in the art of vociferous but peaceful protest. Meanwhile, the country has rebounded economically. Government investment ensured that Harpa was eventually completed, and how splendid she looks. So how has Iceland managed to turn things round so impressively? The answer is because of people like me. Iceland is teeming with tourists. American English seems more common on the streets of Reykjavík than Icelandic does. One local I speak to tells me how much of a shock it is to suddenly have to jostle for space on crowded Reykjavík pavements in this once isolated corner of the world. Walking tours of Reykjavík run all year round, even in the depths of winter, when the deep dark and frightful cold is offset by the majesty of the northern lights. Icelandic roads are groaning under the weight of tour buses ferrying eager visitors from the city to the spectacular sights of Þingvellir national park, Geyser and the Gulfoss waterfall. The Blue Lagoon has become a sort of aquatic UN. Getting a table in a Reykjavík restaurant is no easy feat. Hotel and guesthouse capacity is being stretched. The sheer beauty of the country, coupled with the swarm of tourists, almost makes it feel a bit like a theme park – perhaps one built by God out of lava and powered by geothermal energy. The explosion of tourism in Iceland has driven a period of economic growth similar to that which preceded the Kreppa. But will it last? Can Iceland weather any downturn in visitor numbers? Only time will tell.

The fishing town of Hafnarfjörður lies a half-hour bus drive south of Reykjavík city centre. The capital’s expansion means that it has developed into a suburb, but it retains its own separate identity. I pick up the yellow Strætó bus on Lækjargata and secure a window seat, determined to see what an Icelandic public bus journey has to offer. The route from central Reykjavík to Hafnarfjörður calls at the University of Iceland, the hospital and a large out-of-town bus station, allowing people from all walks of Reykjavík life to get around. University students clutch trendy bags and piles of books, their ears covered by headphones – just like their counterparts anywhere else in the western world. An elderly couple board at the hospital, having struggled through a mound of snow to get to the bus. A man and his children chatter in Icelandic, about what I will never know.

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Colourful Hafnafjordur

I disembark at the main bus stop in Hafnarfjörður, just across the road from the seafront. It’s a cold day, and most of the town is covered in snow. The streets are eerily quiet. I assume the majority of people are at work in Reykjavík or keeping warm indoors. Still, it really is eerie. I’ve come to Hafnarfjörður for a pleasant stroll around the old town, a cluster of traditional colourful Nordic houses on hilly streets overlooking the bay. The steep inclines and frozen ground makes for a more challenging walk than I’d anticipated, but the cuteness of the setting makes it all worthwhile. I stumble upon a rocky hill in the centre of town, a vantage point offering views of the whole town and the mountainous landscapes beyond. The bell tower of Hallgrímskirkja in Reykjavík is visible below the peaks of Esja to the north. The combination of pure white snow and dark, volcanic rock makes for a bleak but beautiful scene. Nobody else is around. The air is cold but fresh and clean. The skies are grey, but reluctant to snow. Seabirds circle the harbour. I feel a deep sense of peace.

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Searching for elves in Hellisgerdi

I stumble upon Hellisgerði by accident. Stomping around the old town, I begin to wonder if I’ll be able to find it, and then it appears, tucked away in an otherwise ordinary housing development. The Elf Garden, has Hellisgerði is known, is one of the main reasons tourists venture to Hafnarfjörður . The park features numerous lava formations and provides a pleasant stroll at any time of year. During my visit, the snow is thick, giving the place a magical air. Magic is a pertinent theme in Hellisgerði. The lava park plays a central role in Icelandic folklore as a home for the Huldufólk – the hidden people. These elf-like creatures are an important part of Icelandic identity. Indeed, during my Reykjavík walking tour, a member of the group was told to step away from a boulder on the edge of someone’s front garden, lest he upset the Huldufólk that dwell within. I don’t meet any Icelanders who believe in the Huldufólk, but they all seem to know somebody who believes, and there are Icelanders who claim to encounter them on a regular basis. It’s bad form to poke fun at this, even around those who don’t personally believe. I don’t come across any trace of the Huldufólk in Hellisgerði. Like the rest of town, it’s deserted, save for two boisterous boys of about nine or ten busily beating a large stone with two sticks. They briefly put a stop to their shenanigans as I pass by, grinning sheepishly as if caught in the act of some misdemeanor. Personally, I consider beating a rock with sticks in a cute little park quite wholesome, compared to what kids sometimes get up to. But then, this is Iceland – a country so safe that our Reykjavík tour guide got very excited at the sight of a police car and told us to take advantage of this rare opportunity and to get some photographs.

Back at the seafront, I take a seat and check the local temperature according to my iPhone app. Two degrees. It’s strange how used to things you become. Normally I wouldn’t dream of stopping for a sit down in weather this chilly, but today, two degrees feels comfortable. In Reykjavík, there’s a bar that promises to open its outdoor terrace whenever the temperature exceeds five degrees. Perfect beer garden weather if you’re Icelandic, I guess.

One of the main reasons people like me are drawn to Iceland is the Golden Circle, a trio of natural wonders an hour or so’s drive inland of Reykjavík. As is so often the case with Icelandic excursions, I’m picked up by a bus at my hotel, then transferred to a larger coach in the suburbs. Even the airport transfer companies operate this way. It seems odd to me, given that Reykjavík city centre is hardly inaccessible for coaches. In any case, the coaches are all modern, comfortable and relatively new. They’re also full to bursting point with tourists from the US and Canada, the UK, continental Europe and even as far away as China and Southeast Asia. Iceland is where it’s at right now.

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Thingvellir national Park

Þingvellir national park gives visitors the chance to walk along the rift between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. The movement of these plates is pulling the island apart and will one day result in it splitting in two. It is Iceland’s proximity to this plate boundary that results in its mountainous terrain and geological activity. The pathway winds for about a mile between the two plates. On our left is North America, while Europe lies to our right. Waterfalls tumble from the cliff faces on either side. A place of stark, remote beauty, Þingvellir no longer feels isolated, as literally hundreds of tourists trudge along the stony path, selfie sticks at the ready. However, the park offers ample opportunities to explore, to ramble and to be amazed if you have the time. On a Golden Circle tour from Reykjavík, you’ll only see the main attraction, and it’s not long before we’re on our way again, snaking along a road that climbs and plunges through mountains, the only traffic being other tour buses and hire cars.

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Gulfoss waterfall, frozen in time

Stop number two is Gulfoss, the epic waterfall that crashes into a ravine in the Hvita river. At this time of year, parts of the waterfall are frozen, suspended in time, as if somebody in Iceland has stopped a clock. The scene is jawdroppingly spectacular – a vivid mix of icy water, shimmering snow-covered terrain and air so fresh it seems almost alien. The excitable hordes fall silent in awe. It seems somehow inappropriate to make noise while mother nature puts on such a show.

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Strokkur being a show-off

The last leg of our Golden Circle tour is arguably the most exciting of all. The first geysir – known as… Geysir – is just a steamy hole in the ground. Eruptions occur every few years or so, meaning the likelihood of seeing one is slim to none. Fortunately, only a few metres away is the more exhibitionist Strokkur, which erupts in spectacular fashion roughly every ten minutes. Strokkur is Cristiano Ronaldo to Geysir’s Gareth Barry. The ground under foot is treacherous, with sloping pathways coated in an icy sheen. To stand still and watch the display is no guarantee of not sliding away into oblivion (or at least into the car park). I manage to find a patch of gravel and plant my feet firmly in place, mentally ticking Strokkur off my bucket list as another jet of boiling hot water spews out of the ground and the ring of onlookers lets out a collective ‘ooh’. I hear ‘ooh’ a lot in Iceland. It’s a very ‘oohy’ country.

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Eyjafjallajökull emerges from the mist

Eyjafjallajökull. Yes, it’s a mouthful. But back in 2010, it was more than just an obscure Icelandic word. Thousands of European holidaymakers fretted over their summer getaways as a north westerly wind brought a plume of ash across the continent, grounding flights. The volcano, in Iceland’s south west, had erupted, bringing chaos to the aviation industry in the process. In late February 2016, under an azure sky, I stand at the side of the road and admire Eyjafjallajökull , casting my mind back to those anxious days in 2010 when I thought my trip to India might be in jeopardy. The volcano stands there before me, quiet as a very large mouse, as if butter wouldn’t melt. However, while things are peaceful for the time being, it might not stay that way for long. Eyjafjallajökull has a bolshy big sister, known as Katla. As far as we know, eruptions of the inconvenient but relatively small Eyjafjallajökull are always followed by a Katla eruption. Except, of course, this time. Katla is considered to be much more dangerous, owing to her relative size and the sheer volume of ice that makes up the glacier under which she broods. A Katla eruption could cause just as much disruption to air travel across Europe and North America as Eyjafjallajökull did. But the risk to life is also much greater. All that ice would have to go somewhere. And even if local lives were spared (this is a sparsely populated area, after all), the consequences for farmland and infrastructure in the region could be devastating. Houses would almost certainly be wiped out. Roads would probably have to be rebuilt at considerable cost. The expulsion of all that ash could cause potentially dangerous environmental changes, not just in Iceland, but across the northern hemisphere. Katla has been bubbling away for a while. The eruption of her little brother in 2010 suggested she would have something to say sooner or later. Nothing so far. For now, she remains a silent ice-capped treasure. For now.

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The wild Atlantic at Vík

Further down the coast from the volcanic siblings is the village of Vík. This small settlement draws tourists to its wild shores and black volcanic beaches. The waves are enormous, crashing down at the edge of the beach as if trying to trigger a Katla eruption. The police have recently been patrolling this area due to several tragic incidents involving naive tourists and the power of the North Atlantic Ocean. Apparently, today is the first day they haven’t been there in weeks. I can see why their presence was required. Swarms of visitors take leave of their senses, climbing onto rocks that jut out into the perilous sea, the risk of being swept into the freezing, violent waters apparently worth taking in search of the perfect selfie. I stand well clear. As an anxiety sufferer, I’ve no interest in making my condition worse by putting my life in danger. But the scene is as beautiful as anything else I’ve seen in Iceland so far. The plunging cliffs provide the backdrop, sweeping down to meet the coastal plain on which Vík sits, with its traditional Nordic church perched on a hill – the only building in town that would likely not be swept away by lava should Katla finally blow her top. The black ‘sand’ gives the beach that otherworldly feel that Iceland does so well.

Not for the first time this week, I find myself boarding a tour bus. Only this time, the sun has gone down and the skies are dark. It’s nine o’clock in the evening and we’re off to see the Northern Lights. Theoretically. The chances aren’t good. Although a few stars can be seen, much of the sky is obscured behind stubborn clouds. Our guide remains optimistic, however. Sometimes it’s cloudy until you get out of the city, and then everything falls into place, he tells a hopeful crowd. I’ve chosen a smaller tour company for this excursion and learn that, by coincidence, our driver is the younger brother of the owner of my guesthouse. They share the same enthusiasm for their line of work, their pride in showing off their country, and the outgoing eccentricity that is quite rare in Icelanders.

The air in Reykjavík has dipped below freezing and is dropping all the while. A fair breeze makes it feel even colder. By the time the bus reaches the suburbs, the temperature gauges are reading minus ten. The guide breaks into song, beckoning the Northern Lights to be kind to us this evening, to emerge from behind the cloudy blanket and come out to play. The forecast is not good, and I can see only one star out of the window. We drive about 45 minutes out of Reykjavík, stopping in an icy lay-by off a deserted mountain road. Light from the moon illuminates my breath in front of my face. The clouds have begun to disperse and clear sky is visible. In the distance, above the clouds, is a strange light – a mysterious glow that generates an excited hubbub among frozen onlookers. After much deliberation, it’s decided that this is just a trick of the moon. How cruel.

Giving up on our first location, we drive on to Þingvellir. Far from any sources of artificial light, the mountains surrounding the winding roads are visible only as jagged silhouettes. It feels like civilisation could be days away. By this point, the clouds have gathered again. Þingvellir has nothing to offer, so we push on again. Arriving at Geyser, it occurs to me that I’m now getting the Golden Circle tour again, only this time at night. It’s fascinating to see Strokkur in action in the dark – a bonus of the trip. If only the skies could have matched Strokkur’s penchant for showmanship. Three times now I’ve disembarked a comfortable, warm bus to stagger around in the dark, slipping on unseen icy hazards, frozen to the bone in the lowest temperatures I’ve ever experienced.

Our guide plays the situation as best he can. His optimism is undimmed till the end. His repetoire of Northern Lights-themed songs keeps the troops happy. Alas, we run out of options. We make one final stop, and although the clouds have parted a little, the skies above are not performing. A couple of weeks later, the Northern Lights become visible across a large swathe of Britain and Ireland. However, I manage to miss this display. My wait to encounter this breathtaking phenomenon goes on.

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Fishing and whaling vessels in Reykjavík Harbour

Icelandic cuisine turns out to be quite interesting. Perhaps the first thing that springs to mind is whale meat. A controversial industry, I’m told early on in my trip that Icelanders rarely eat whale and that there is nothing especially authentic about eating whale while in Iceland. Almost all whale meat sold in the country is served in restaurants catering for tourists, who wrongly assume they are having an authentic Icelandic experience. He doesn’t suggest that we don’t try it, but knowing this is enough to make me think twice. I also think twice about trying kæstur hákarl – fermented shark. A common snack food in Iceland, it seems to divide opinion. Some love it, some cannot stand it. A shopkeeper in a Reykjavík supermarket peels back a plastic lid so I can have a smell. The fact I didn’t deign to taste the stuff should tell you all you need to know. I’m all for new cultural experiences, but I just… I just couldn’t. It’s not all ethically dubious whale meat and oddly-preserved shark, though. Icelandic lamb is special. I’m no lover of lamb, but I vowed to give it a go, and I was not disappointed. Succulent and tender, Icelandic lamb lacks the chewiness and stringiness I often associate with cuts back home. It may have been one of the most expensive plates of food I’ve ever had, but I could never regret it. The local mussels are also a must-try on a visit to Iceland. It’s no surprise that seafood should play such a key role in Icelandic cuisine, of course, but I would go so far as to say that these are the best mussels I have ever tasted. I sampled a huge bowl of them in a Belgian restaurant in Reykjavík as part of a guided culinary tour, and my guide explained to me how the clean, lively waters off the west coast swill and swish the mussels around in a motion that seems to contribute to their unique flavour and quality.

If fancy mussels and extravagantly-priced cuts of lamb don’t tickle your fancy, how about a hot dog? In the centre of town, just off Austurvöllur is a hot dog stand operated by Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur, bedecked in cheerful-looking red and white paint. Serving hot dogs at a rate of about 40 a minute, the servers’ arms helicoptering at a hundred miles an hour to assemble eager tourists’ orders, this venue took on a new significance in 2004 when Bill Clinton visited and declared it the best hot dog he’d ever eaten. In late February, the dining area is reminiscent of the Keystone Cops as people try to maintain their balance on the icy asphalt without losing too much filling from their hot dogs. It’s a challenging eat in such an environment. Surprisingly, the sausage itself seems to be a regular frankfurter, such as you might find preserved in brine and encased in a can at your local supermarket. However, the chefs prepare the onions and mustard in a way that injects magic into what would otherwise be a very ordinary hot dog. I will never know how anyone makes a hot dog in which the onions and mustard are the star attraction, but these guys do.If it’s good enough for the former President of the United States, it’s good enough for me.

By the time I leave Iceland, I’ve already vowed to come back. I need to see the Northern Lights. That goes without saying. But I also want to return in the summer, when the nights are too light for aurora borealis, but the more clement weather conditions might make for a safer road trip under my own steam. Iceland is under something of a tourist siege right now. But it’s not hard to see why. In one week, I’ve walked on a frozen lake, seen a police car, scared two boys in a park full of elves, walked along a rift valley, braved the elements on a black-sand beach, seen an active volcano, been entertained by a geysir, declined the chance to eat fermented shark, chased the Northern Lights (albeit unsuccessfully), sampled the same hot dog as Bill Clinton, and met some wonderful people. Not bad for a country with a population the size of Coventry.

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