Dangerous, unrecognized countries? Let’s go!
By JOHN DOYLE
Globe and Mail, Canada
July 18 2005
As an Irish ballad informs us with pith, “Everybody needs a break/climb
a mountain or jump in a lake.” It’s a song about summer holidays, which
people are kinda weird about. Some motor off to the cottage. Some
fly off to see the relatives in the old country. Others decide to
visit somewhere they’ve seen in a movie. The sister came over here to
bother me — and the brother. The mother and the da are, apparently,
going to Bucharest. Why? They saw it on TV and took a notion.
Some people are a tad wackier when it comes to vacations, though.
They’ll go to places that are remote and dangerous. If there are
warnings from the government and international organizations that the
place is hostile to outsiders, all the better. The ultimate list of
such places is covered in a new British series starting here tonight.
Holidays in the Danger Zone: Places That Don’t Exist (Newsworld,
8 p.m.) is outstanding television. That’s because Simon Reeve, the
host/reporter, is endlessly curious and incredibly brave.
When we last encountered Reeve he was showing us around “the Stans,”
countries such as Kazakhstan, that few outsiders visit. It was an
excellent series, exceptionally revealing of both the general and
Reeve is now one of the great TV figures. A smart and cheerful
Englishman, he’s a combination of Michael Palin and serious political
reporter. Before he started making these odd but fascinating TV
programs, he wrote one of the landmark books about al-Qaeda.
In this series he visits countries that don’t officially exist. Most
aren’t recognized by other countries or the United Nations and,
in many cases you won’t find the details on a map.
His first stop in the new series is Somaliland, which broke away from
Somalia few years ago. To get there, he had to go to Somalia first.
His time in Mogadishu is truly bizarre. He ambles around, surrounded
by hired thugs because that’s the only way to get a bit of peace in
Somalia. Even then, things are a bit tense. Amiable and oblivious to
the danger around him, though, Reeve visits the “tourist spots” —
those places where the real events depicted in the movie Black Hawk
Down took place. To get out of Somalia a person needs a passport. For
that, Reeve did business with the chap in charge of such matters,
a very frightening man known as Mr. Big Beard.
Meanwhile in Somaliland, the people are trying to create something
resembling a stable country. It’s as if all the sensible people fled
Somalia and tried to set up an alternative version. In fact they did,
tired of warlords and endless bloodshed. But nobody recognizes it as
a country so far. The United Nations gives it some money and that’s
about all the support it gets. Reeve wanders into a meeting of the
government of Somaliland. “What is your national budget?” he asks
of the Prime Minister. The man laughs. “Whatever we get,” he says.
Somaliland doesn’t officially exist, but it looks like a promising
In the second episode, airing next week, Reeve visits Transdniestria.
It’s a wannabe country tucked between Moldova and Ukraine. The people
of Transdniestria would rather be closer to Ukraine and Russia,
since Moldova is considered the poorest country in Europe.
There, Reeve meets the President, who wants to get him drunk, and then
a group of men in a village who have sold their kidneys for cash. Once
in Transdniestria, Reeve finds a weird Soviet-style society. No other
country recognizes this little country, but it has its own currency,
postage stamps, government and president. Its economy seems to rest
on a bunch of enormous steel factories that were part of the Soviet
system. They function today, probably making armaments. Reeve traipses
around, like a slightly dotty tourist, and asks impertinent questions.
In later programs in the five-part series (continuing through Wednesday
and next week), Reeve visits Nagorno-Karabakh, South Ossetia and
Taiwan. It is all excellent television, the sort of hybrid journalism
that television does very well. If you want to use the series for
summer holiday suggestions, that’s entirely up to you.
Also airing tonight: Medium (CTV, 9 p.m., NBC, 10 p.m.) is a repeat,
but it is one of those episodes worth noting. In this one, Allison
(Patricia Arquette) has a dream about two boys racing a train. In the
dream, one boy disappears. Her search for the meaning of the dream
leads her to consult a professor who specializes in communicating
with the dead. Thus we get a double-whammy of paranormal shenanigans.
Having seen many of the new shows arriving this fall, I can tell
you that this double-whammy is just the start. The paranormal is the
coming thing. I can see it, and I’m no medium.