The theme of this month’s issue is 1984, which is either based around George Orwell’s timeless story of love and betrayal under a totalitarian regime, or the year in which George Michael first released school disco slow-dance classic Careless Whisper.
Maybe it’ll be a bit of both, like Saddam Hussain playing a mournful saxophone whilst Pol Pot is crying in the nightclub toilets because his girlfriend ran off with General Pinochet.
Well, you don’t need me to tell you about holidays where you can hear Careless Whisper, as there’s a whole coast of Spain for that, so instead I’ve composed this piece in the spirit of the other George, showcasing those out-of-the-way destinations where a careless wh
isper could lead to a much longer stay than you’d anticipated.
Now it’s true that many of these places lack the creature comforts that many travellers are used to, but that’s not to say they don’t have their own unique charms. Many of them are off the beaten track (perhaps because they tend not to keep track of beatings) and you’ll truly be a travelling pioneer in enjoying their closely-monitored amenities and insane monuments to dictatorial power. The best thing is that you don’t have to worry about missing a thing, as it’s highly likely that your every movement will be recorded by a secret policeman in an ill-fitting polyester suit.
It’s a shame they’re all so far away, although I suspect it’ll only take a few more years of austerity before Greece and Italy are once again under the control of men with moustaches and silly hats and we have a sort of fascist Eurodisney of our very own. Until then, fly away, my pretties…
The small-scale, boutique oppression offered by countries like Cuba and Singapore isn’t for everybody, and some holidaymakers will prefer a country that represses its people in the grand, traditional fashion. If you agree then there’s really only one destination for you, and that’s the People’s Republic of China. Home to almost a fifth of the global population, China is a vast land of enormous geographic diversity, from the majestic Karst mountains of Yangshuo, the tranquil valley of Jiuzhaigou to the haunting emptiness of the forbidden city of Beijing. There’s so much to do across this huge nation that you’ll struggle to plan your itinerary, if only because Google is banned and so attempts to access email or Facebook will lead to a squad of goons kicking down the door to your hotel room. China is struggling to modernise, but the good news is that this is more economic than rights-based, and you’ll find that old-fashioned bribery still goes hand-in-hand with a contempt for democracy and a population of political prisoners large enough to fill most of western Europe.
China has so much to offer the traveller in search of repression, but in recent years some people have felt that its modernisation programme has lost a lot of what made the PRC such an utterly terrifying place under Chairman Mao and his murderous gang of political zealots. Those people should book a flight to North Korea, a country where the only modernisation programme is in the private playrooms of its hereditary leadership. This tiny, paranoid nation stands preserved in amber as a charming museum of everything that was completely bonkers about fifties-style totalitarian pseudo-Marxism, by which I mean everybody is depressed and hungry, nothing works properly and there are a million rules, none of which make sense. The food is grey, the people are terrified and a dictator who died in 1994 is technically still president. Attractions include a recently-discovered unicorn lair, spontaneous declarations of national pride whenever you happen to ‘bump into’ English-speaking residents and a theme park that wouldn’t have passed health and safety in the Soviet Union. You’ll never forget your time in North Korea, especially as they have an unfortunate tendency to kidnap visitors and subject them to decades-long brainwashing.
For those holiday makers who’d like to dip a toe in the world of oppressive package tours, but maybe aren’t sure that full-on human rights abuses are right for them, I always advise to start with the beautiful land of Cuba. In many ways, Cuba is the acceptable face of non-democracy, as it’s easy to appreciate fifty years as a one-party state when you look at the numerous attempts by their powerful freedom-lovin’ American neighbour to destroy their socialist economy and assassinate bearded father of the nation, Fidel Castro, with cigars dipped in LSD. The end product is a unique brand of sunny, tropical oppression, nourished with hearty national dish ropa vieja and soundtracked by Buena Vista Social Club. Yes, journalists are occasionally imprisoned, corruption is endemic, prostitution is widespread; but Cuba has gorgeous beaches, historic architecture and its inhabitants enjoy free hospital care and university education. They’re friendly, welcoming people, eager to teach visitors about their thriving culture and proud history, and occasionally to seek political asylum in your suitcase.
As a total contrast to Cuba, you should consider a holiday with ‘the strict man of Asia’, the shining city-state of Singapore. Best described as ‘sort of a democracy, depending on who you ask, and whether they think anybody is listening’, Singapore is proud to show the world what you can achieve under a draconian capitalist system. You’ll marvel at the sights of this clean, modern nation and its diverse blend of slightly-oppressed inhabitants. Singaporean culture is rich in culinary and artistic influences from neighbours China, Malaysia and India, as well as Britain, its former colonial overlord. They’ve worked together to create a modern economy that’s high on international finance, has boutique shops and world-class restaurants, but is maybe a bit deficient on the old essential freedoms. You can enjoy spotless buildings, art and high culture and wonderful food, just make sure you don’t drop your chewing gum in the street or you’ll probably be lashed.