‘I’ve been to Afghanistan and Iraq, but main security incident I experienced was in Belfast’

Travel writer Johnny Blair has had adventures in warzones, little-known locations and even the Irish autonomous region of Podjistan

Travel writer and backpacker  Jonny Blair   at the Blue Mosque in Mazar-i-Sharif during a 2016 visit: The city – the third-largest in Afghanistan – was one of the first to fall in 2001 after the American-led invasion

Travel writer and backpacker Jonny Blair at the Blue Mosque in Mazar-i-Sharif during a 2016 visit: The city – the third-largest in Afghanistan – was one of the first to fall in 2001 after the American-led invasion

 

From Bangor, Co Down, Jonny Blair has travelled to Afghanistan, Iraq, El Salvador and many places you may not have even ever heard of – such as Transnistria and the Republic of Karakalpakstan.

A travel writer and backpacker, he has been travelling full-time for seven of the past 13 years and has visited around 120 countries – many of them currently struggling under the weight of years of warfare.

“I like to go to places where there are typically less tourists, or preferably, no other tourists,” says Blair, who takes up jobs along the way and blogs at dontstopliving.net.

“It gives me an adrenalin rush and a passion for writing about off-the-wall spots. As a travel writer, nothing upsets me more than another boring article on Thailand or Australia, so I try to steer away from that market and find out about a place nobody heard of.

“Typically unknown wacky regions like Gorno Badakhshan, Transnistria and Ladonia hit my niche, but the media-hyped danger spots like Afghanistan, El Salvador and Iraq do too. You can even find less touristy places in Ireland - has anyone else heard of Podjistan for example? Look it up, it’s on the island of Ireland [The People’s Republic of Podjistan is a “micronation” in Banbridge, Co Down].

“In 2013, I visited Iraq. We toured the northern Kurdish part including Erbil, Duhok, Mosul and Sulaymaniyah. In Sulaymaniyah, I was able to visit Iraq’s first museum, housed at Amna Suraka – a complex notorious for being a killing zone and ‘house of horrors’ under the Saddam Hussein regime. I found the country to be extremely welcoming and peaceful – especially in the mountain villages near Amadiya and in Erbil. Erbil even has a strip of bars and a Christian quarter, so Iraq is not the complete warzone the media claim – it’s a huge country and the dangers are more prevalent in some parts.

“This year, I visited the autonomous regions of Karakalpakstan and Gorno Badakhshan and crossed the land border to Afghanistan. In Afghanistan, I got to play football with teenagers in Samangan, tour Tashkurgan, and visit the home of Zoroastrianism at Balkh and the stunning Blue Mosque in Mazar-i-Sharif.

“Afghanistan was brilliant, and emotional. It’s a huge country and of course parts of it are very remote, extreme and full of mountains and scenery Ireland would be proud of. It’s not a complete country of war and people need to realise that.

“Most people live their daily lives as normal and most people are the same as you or I. I was crying when I left the football pitch that day by the Buddhist monastery and it was an emotional sendoff at the border exit bridge in Hairatan as well. I also got to hang out with an Afghanistan former under-19 international footballer and we watched Buzkashi, their national sport [horse-mounted players attempt to place a goat in a goal].

“Despite travelling to these countries, the main security incidents I have experienced in life have been in Belfast, or in Caracas [Venezuela] or at the Tajikistan to Uzbekistan border. But the buzz of travel always wins over the dodgy moments.”

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