Our newest themed interview Series begins today and is entitled ‘The Professionals’. We will feature a number of very diverse individuals whose common element is that they make their living primarily through the travel industry. Today we have the pleasure of interviewing Joel Gallagher who works as Europe Tours Manager for Young Pioneer Tours, mainly involved in Eastern European and former Soviet destinations.
Joel, tell us something about your early years and how your love of travel developed.
I grew up in a small town in Northern England and my father was an avid traveller who racked up many countries during his life. Hearing his action packed and often hair raising stories from escapades around the world inspired me to travel. As a teenager I developed an interest in human conflict, edgy places and political hotspots. So I first began travelling alone at 18 and always opting for the places I was warned to stay away from such as the North Caucasus, breakaway states and the rougher side of South America.
Why are you particularly interested in the Soviet Union?
Since the Soviet Union was slightly out of my generation, it certainly holds an air of mysticism around it for me. I am drawn to the Brutalist and often dominating architecture of the former USSR as well as its grand and totalitarian monuments. The sheer size of the fallen empire leaves unlimited chances for unique travel experiences. I’m a big fan of photographing dilapidated structures and places with dark atmospheres and for me I feel there are few places on earth as photogenic and rewarding as the former Soviet Union. I aim is to explore every corner of the post-Soviet world from the frozen wastes of Northern Russia to the tropical Soviet sanatoriums of Abkhazia.
You work for Young Pioneer Tours. What makes YPT unique and what does your role as European manager involve?
Over two years ago I became the manager for YPT Europe which goes under the brand ‘Soviet Wastelands’. My job involves coordinating all YPT operations throughout the former USSR and can see me guiding group and private tours through various countries as well as conducting research trips into new destinations. YPT is unique due its attitude and its pricing, they always ensure our tours are affordable without hidden costs in order to make extreme travel to adventurous locations accessible for all age groups and all people. The company always takes care of local partners in all of our destinations and strives to stay away from generic tourist experiences, instead showing people the down to earth, no holds barred real life situations across destinations less travelled.
Does it get boring to focus on one region of the world?
Never, due to the size of the post-Soviet world, there are always new destinations with different cultures, unique history and weird and wacky sights to keep me entertained. Whether I’m taking a dip in the Black Sea or exploring abandoned Gulags on the Road of Bones in Siberia, the East always has something on offer. My range of clients also make the region continuously interesting, showing people untouched destinations and new experiences throughout the East is constantly satisfying.
Tell us some stories from trips which have stuck in your mind.
One of my most memorable stories from a YPT tour was visiting the ‘city of the dead’ in Chechnya, a settlement that had effectively been ethnically cleansed of Chechens during Josef Stalin’s infamous deportations in 1944. Whilst there we met a Jordanian man who was curious to see Westerners in such a remote part of Chechnya. It turned out his family were from this village and were scattered across the Middle East in the wake of the deportations. He still spoke fluent Chechen and followed every tradition despite never having visited the country until that day. He claimed his pilgrimage back to his ancestral village was one of his all time life goals.
One of my most memorable private tours with YPT was a photography trip through Bosnia with an American client. We hired a driver and went on a road trip through the corners of Bosnia that few people ever see. The sites we came across were incredibly dark, from war torn villages that had been mostly abandoned to hotel complexes that were used as torture centres during the Bosnian war and, shockingly, was still in operation as a hotel.
Have you ever experienced something dangerous or unsettling?
Yes, many times whilst travelling alone, from arrests by jumpy secret police to being in the middle of a mass brawl and violent knife fight in the Caucasus mountains. However I treat these incidents as a learning experience and never let it impact my opinions on certain destinations. One example was my first visit to Moscow a long time ago when I was less well travelled: around 4:00am I entered an unmarked, shared airport taxi and was literally ‘taken for a ride’ around Moscow for 3 hours. When the other passengers left I was charged for the entire ride and was violently robbed at gunpoint of around 300 Euros by the driver.
Do you feel travelling is becoming easier or harder compared to 10 years ago and why?
I feel travelling is becoming a lot easier compared to 10 years ago, mainly due to the progress of various travel apps, blogs and communications. For example, the combination of taxi and translation apps now make it extremely easy to get around to often difficult to reach destinations in foreign lands. Travel blogs and Youtube channels now provide a wealth of information on various locations around the world and how to visit them. Sites like Facebook and Instagram are great methods of networking for like minded travellers and allows easy communication and contact making.
What’s your favourite travel book?
My favourite travel book would have to be Vodka Shot and Pickle Chaser by David A. Kalis. This documents an American student’s travel around Russia during the collapse of the USSR and the crime ridden years that followed.
What can you not travel without?
My camera, there is rarely a day goes by whilst travelling that I don’t capture a photogenic shot of daily life or the historical past in the former USSR. Whilst transiting on long journeys, I take the time to process my photos and edit them. Many of my clients are photographers and it’s great to share interesting shots with them.
What is high on your bucket list and why?
An item high on my bucket list is to witness a space launch at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. I’ve always been fascinated by the Soviet adoration of Yuri Gagarin and have travelled to many far flung monuments to the man across the Soviet Union. To meet Cosmonauts and explore the historical spots leading up the launch of Gagarin would be a spectacular travel experience.
What’s on your travel menu for the next few months?
I was just in Transnistria over New Year! In the coming months I’ll be kicking off the tour schedule again with many planned expeditions to the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, Arctic Russia and the North Caucasus as well as guiding one of longest train journeys in the world: The Moscow to Pyongyang rail adventure in May, all of which I’m very excited for!
And our signature question – if you could invite any four people from any period in human history to dinner, who would you invite and why?
Stretching from 336 BC to present day, some of my guests would need to be raised from the dead and catering requirements may be awkward to fulfill!
Vladimir Lenin: whilst I’m far from a Communist, on my travels I feel I’ve seen a Lenin monument more times than I’ve seen my own face. I feel it would be fascinating to share a glass of Vodka with Lenin and hear the first hand story of his life during the Russian Revolution and the infamous train journey into Saint Petersburg. I would love to find out what was true and what was made up after his death and most importantly, to talk about what he had never seen such as WW2, the Cold War, Chernobyl, the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union and the reign of Vladimir Putin.
Alexander the Great: a historical figure I admire hugely is that of Alexander the Great, proof that age is really just a number! I would love to discuss what it was like to take charge of an empire at the age of 20 before launching an unprecedented military campaign through Asia and northeast Africa and subsequently creating one of the largest empires of the ancient world by the age of 30. I would love to talk about what it was like to explore lands from Greece to northwestern India in an era where few people travelled at all and after an action packed decade of life, was he content with a young death at the age of 32.
Martin Scorsese: I’m a huge movie fan and some of my all time favourite movies were directed by Martin Scorsese. To share a few beers with him and discuss movie making over the decades would be fascinating, especially the nitty gritty of the making of Taxi Driver, a masterpiece filmed on the tough and wild streets of 1970’s New York.
Oliver Cromwell: One of my favourite historical periods is the English Civil War, with Cromwell being one of the most infamous figures of the war and the subsequent violent conquest of Ireland, I would love to gain an insight into one of the most turbulent and violent times of English history and discuss modern day England and the troubles in Ireland which can arguably be traced back to his actions.