Stephen is behind the very nicely organised travel site The Trip Goes On and is especially interested is Dark Tourism. Currently living in China, he has explored around 50 countries, some of them among the more unusual ones His interview was taken before the current corona virus outbreak but Stephen, who has now been ‘stuck’ at home for 38 days, has written a must-read report about it on his website!
Steve, tell us something about your early years and how your love for travel developed.
I started to really develop an interest in travel after borrowing a copy of Bill Bryson’s Notes from a Small Island from my mother when I was around 17 years old. Although the book was about a foreigner in my home country of England, I soon finished it and moved straight on to Neither Here nor There about Bryson’s travels in Europe. I was absolutely hooked.
I started to collect National Geographic magazines from around this time and I would spend my days dreaming and planning potential itineraries; many of which came to nothing, but a few of which came to fruition many years later.
My first taste of independent travel came at the age of 21 when I took a short flight to my grandfather’s old stomping grounds in Scotland. I spent an incredible few days hiking in the West Highlands and from then there was no turning back. This was around the same time that budget airlines sprang up and I found myself flying all over Europe for little more than the price of a pint on every bit of holiday I could take from work!
At the DMZ (North Korean side) with an army Major of the DPRK.
You have a blog called The Trip Goes on. Tell us about it and what you aim with this.
I started thetripgoeson.com about 3 years ago to document my time in China and it grew from there really. Initially it was just a project to fill my free time and I didn’t take it very seriously. Over the last year I have been growing an audience and trying to build up a brand with the eventual aim of earning a living while travelling and writing about my experiences.
The blog centres around overland travel and dark tourism with a focus on Central and Northeast Asia as that is where I have spent the most time over this period.
My goal is to provide a comprehensive resource for people like me who prefer to travel overland and to extreme places.
On the old Silk Road at Dunhuang, China.
You seem especially interested in Dark Tourism. Why? Give us a few ‘dark’ places you have visited.
I’ve always been fascinated by dark and extreme things such as art and music, so it was only natural that the way I travel would eventually reflect this. I have visited many incredible “dark” places over the years. The ones that stand out would be Chernobyl (a lifelong obsession), North Korea (two visits so far), the Door to Hell in Turkmenistan and the Karlag Gulag in Kazakhstan. On a smaller scale the Chapel of the Cappucins in Rome, Secret Nuclear Bunker in my home county of Essex and the old haunts of Vlad Tepes in Romania were also fascinating!
Staying with a nomadic family in Mongolia
And what’s on your bucket list of dark destinations?
Chernobyl was the number 1 on my dark bucket list, but having visited last year I need to think about something to replace it. I think the nuclear wasteland of Semipatalinsk in my favourite country of Kazakhstan should fit the bill quite nicely. I am also thinking about a trip to the Jordan arms fair next year where Dictators and shady government types meet every two years to test out the latest in weaponry, but I’m not sure if I’m 100% morally comfortable with the idea yet, so we shall see.
Sneaky selfie at the Afghanistan border
So is there a dark traveller community out there and how does it work?
I’ve always been a bit of a lone wolf so not sure about a wider community, though I would certainly be interested to find like-minded people. The recent television series’ Dark Touristand Chernobyl seem to have popularised the idea of dark tourism so I think we can expect to see a rise. Thankfully many of my friends share similar (dark) interests so it wasn’t hard to recruit travelling companions to places like Chernobyl and the Door to Hell.
At The Door to Hell/Darvaza Gas Crater, Turkmenistan
What about non-dark tourism then? Do you find that ‘boring’ or do you still enjoy it? What are some of your favourite experiences from ‘normal’ places?
Absolutely, dark tourism is just a small, though important aspect of travelling for me. If I had to choose between nature/wilderness and dark tourism, the former would win every time. Antarctica and Everest are the two big destinations I have on my bucket list right now (I don’t really like that term, but can’t think of an alternative, ha).
Highlights from ‘normal’ places would have to be Montenegro and the Black Lake (most of Eastern Europe and the Balkans actually), Mongolia and Lake Baikal in Siberia.
At the DUGA Radar Station, Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, Ukraine
You’re currently living in China. What have been some of the biggest rewards and difficulties of living there?
The biggest reward has been the ability to travel widely in China and neighbouring countries, which would otherwise be difficult and costly if I were still in the UK. China has so many incredible landscapes from the karst mountains in the south to the frozen wastes of Manchuria on the border of Siberia and the vast and empty western regions. It’s been a privilege to tour the country so extensively.
Regarding difficulties, I suppose being lazy and not learning the language has presented the biggest obstacles. China is very different from Europe and sometimes homesickness creeps in, but on the whole it’s been a very positive experience so far.
Hiking Sunset Peak on Lantua Island, Hong Kong
And what are some hidden gems of China that our travellers may not be aware of?
China has so many hidden gems. Siguniangshan Mountain in the autonomous Tibetan region is an incredible place that is free of the crowds. Luoyang, the city I have called home for the last 4 years is also something of a hidden gem as it is not really on the tourist trail. It was the former capital of China and starting point of the Silk Road so has a tonne of interesting historical sites and some amazing national parks nearby.
And your favourite 3 places in China are…
Hmm, good question. I’ve always loved Hong Kong, but not for the city, rather the tiny secluded islands and jungle that sees very few tourists. Being able to stock up on a few home comforts is an added bonus!
Yangshuo would have to be on the list for its incredible landscape of rivers and mountains and I have very fond memories of taking my father there last year.
The third place would have to be Siguniangshan for its breath-taking scenery and that’s where I first met my girlfriend.
On the shores of the Caspian, Baku, Azerbaijan
Finally our signature question – if you could invite any four people (alive or dead) to dinner, who would you invite and why?
Great question! The first would have to be my grandfather who is my biggest inspiration and who sadly passed away in 2017. He himself drove from England to Iraq in the 1950s when he was working as assistant professor at Baghdad University and I wouldn’t pass up any opportunity no matter how fictitious, to chat with him again.
The next would be John Simpson, BBC World Affairs Editor, whose books inspired me to travel to some of the less comfortable places I’ve visited. He seems to have been at almost all of the defining events of the 20th Century and I’d love to hear more of his tales.
Third would be Bruce Dickinson from British heavy metal band Iron Maiden who seems to me a modern day polymath (rock star, fencing champion, commercial airline pilot etc). He always comes across as very down to earth and I’d love to share a beer with him!
Finally, it would probably have to be someone a little despotic just to keep things interesting. Maybe Vlad Tepes, ha!
Watching the sun rise over Kagoshima and Sakurajima Volcano, Japan
Postscript from Stephen a few hours before publication of this interview: I was in Tibet when things started to get serious with the corona virus. I travelled home through a deserted country which was a very surreal experience. I’ve been stuck at home for 38 days now but things are slowly starting to get back to normal. The city parks have reopened this week so I’m looking forward to getting out and seeing a bit of greenery for the first time in over a month! Obviously the schools are still closed and I have no idea when they will reopen, so I’m trying to decide whether to stay here, or make a move to Kazakhstan a little earlier than anticipated.