When I was 17 and travelled to Mongolia, where I stayed with a pen pal, I then took the Trans-Mongolian railway to the city of Hohhot, in the Inner Mongolia province of China. It was two days of travel across the Gobi Desert with amazing views, sharing the cabin with Mongolian women with whom I could communicate in Russian, and who offered me strange but delicious Mongolian food all the time. I arrived in Hohhot at around midnight, and thought I would arrive to somewhere rather quiet – I was wondering how to get a taxi and so on. Instead I got to a square – the square of the train station – which was bustling with people, with food stands, with street sellers, with sounds and scents of China. It was wonderful. It felt surreal. I finally managed to find a hotel (a rather good find, at USD 30 nightly for a four-star hotel), and in the morning I was woken up by an interesting combination of sounds: a glin-glin sound and music. I looked out of the window, and what did I see from my upper floor hotel room ? It was an eight-lane road, without any cars, but filled with literally thousands of bicycles. And radio speakers were located every hundred metres or so, broadcasting news and music. Wow, I thought to myself: now I am really traveling.
After three wonderful days exploring the sights and sounds and food of this wonderful place, and without seeing a single Caucasian person in three days, I took a flight to Guangzhou and a train to Hong Kong, where I was clearly in a more westernized environment, but was fascinated by this fusion of western and eastern cultures. And from there via Manila (again a nice one-day stopover as one more country), I went to Indochina which was absolutely fabulous. Monasteries spotting the green landscapes, bonzes walking around in sandals, and so little traffic – back then. I did visit those countries later, quite recently, and things have changed so much. I feel lucky having been able to go at that time.
And another one... I believe some websites consider that Tokelau is the remotest places I have been to (alas, Pitcairn is still on my to-do list). Around 2002 or 2003, I remember doing a lot of planning while I was in Fiji, to book the regular ship which travelled between Apia and Tokelau once a month. I was excited for a while before even getting to Apia. And my excitement was at super levels when I boarded this small ship, in the company of several Tokelauans and one doctor from New Zealand. So off we went, to the islands of Fakaofo, Nukunono, and Atafu. During the journey, I mainly had fish caught by the other passengers (I hadn't really thought of the food aspect). In Fakaofo and Nukunono, we spent about half a day in each. I was busy getting to know the villagers, chatting with them as much as I possibly could, trying to have at least a glimpse of their life in this remote part of the world – three small islands with about 500 inhabitants each. In Nukunono I took part in some sort of island celebration. It was wonderful. And while the focus of my travels is always on people, the scenery was amazing too. And by the way, I also took the time to get all my passport stamped by a very nice female sergeant who took care of immigration, to buy postcards and stamps, and the usual tick-the-box things. In Atafu we arrived at night. Small rowing boats took the other passengers and me from the ship to the shore. Some kind of animals – I would describe them as some sort of maritime cockroaches – were climbing on me – but the villagers were promptly removing them. So, I had no idea where to stay. But with my Lonely Planet guidebook in hand, wow, even in such a remote place this made it. The guidebook said that there was a guesthouse run by a "master fisherman" called Feleti Lopa, and indeed, there he was ! The other passengers helped me wake him up in the middle of the night, and he showed me to the guest room. He offered me some coconuts and bananas – so friendly and welcoming. Amazing time. I can't wait to go to Pitcairn.
And while as I said people are the focus of my travels, around 2003 I also enjoyed my 24 hours in Antarctica, to where I travelled from Punta Arenas with the Chilean Air Force thanks to a contact. It was to the place which Chile calls "Villa Las Estrellas" on King George Island. As I arrived and I noticed an Italian flag just below the Chilean one, I cluelessly asked whether there was an Italian personality visiting. "It is you", they replied, and I felt sort of odd – but indeed they took my visit as a tourist / journalist very seriously. In those 24 hours I didn't sleep at all – it was too exciting to waste time like that. I had lunch with some scientists from Chile, then I went off to explore the three bases located there: one Chilean, one Russian, and one Chinese. The Russian one was almost empty (those were hard times for Russia), though the scientists on duty were very happy to chat with me and to stamp my passport. The Chinese by contrast had some 100 people in a large social room, who offered me great food and tea – and also stamped my passport. The Chileans had a lot more facilities there and I spent time talking to as many people as possible – along with passport stamps and of course postcards. After having a drink with the scientists and military in the local bar, I went off to see the Penguins – I could touch them, wonderful. I took lots of photos of course. During the night I spent time in the airspace control tower, where I learned from the person there – with whom I remained in touch – how he was responsible for controlling the civilian air space over a huge portion of land and water, taking care of flights, for example, that would be around en route between Argentina and Australia. In the morning I had a quick helicopter run to the mainland i.e. the Antarctic Peninsula, and then back to Punta Arenas.