“If this is heaven, then send me to hell” – Dodgy.
I don’t know if this is “not for the faint hearted” or not, as to be frankly sincere about this – life is a journey and you need to see the bad to know the good. I’ll go anywhere. It really doesn’t matter if it’s grim or not – every journey is important, everywhere is worth seeing. Nowhere should be off limits. Remember, time will be my enemy but –
“If it exists as a place, I’ll go to it” – Jonny Blair.
Backpacking certainly isn’t a golden paradise of bikini babes and muscle boys sipping wannabe cocktails from some popular beach watching the hot orange ballbag sink over some flashpacker pad in urban coastal Thailandiskan. Bollocks to that hyperbole. None of that excrement. The world is there to be seen in all its glory. The world is there to be seen in all its gory. The world is there to be seen in all its Gori. Ups and downs. Snakes and ladders. Ugly and beauty. Nobody wants a rose without climbing through barbed wire. If you do, you don’t deserve the rose and I hope you don’t get it.
“Hospital closures kill more than car bombs ever will” – Manic Street Preachers.
Also – it wasn’t hard to write this, it was easy. I was taking a break between editing my book “ChampIAN STEWARTnova” and finishing the final Volume 4 of my “Backpacking Centurion” series and darkness set in over eastern Warsaw’s skyline as I drifted back through my not so glory days. I picked 20 grim places, I could have picked 40. I didn’t put anywhere in Iran or Israel on this list – nor the Berlin Wall nor even USA or Venezuela – the two countries I like the least now.
This is just my gory list – the worst places I have been in terms of personal shock. Whether it was my shock during research and study days in childhood, my shock understanding of politics and religious mayhem or just the grimness of it all when I took my weary soul through these nightmare places. I’m glad I went to all of them though. And there will be more to come. Face the truth. Move over a notch, Belfast City, you can stay in the sun for now…you’re all too beautiful.
In no particular order, these are the 20 grimmest places I have backpacked.
1.Amna Suraka (Saddam Hussein’s House of Horrors), Sulaymaniyeh, IRAQ
“Rain down on me from a great height” – Thom Yorke.
In January 2014, I headed alone to Amna Suraka. Red Security. In short – Hussein’s Death Camp. I covered it quite intensely at the time. I just can’t dress it up anymore – this was grim. It was sick and hollow. I was the only tourist there, in what was Iraq’s first public museum at the time after Saddam Hussein’s death.
This building shows all that went wrong in Iraq. Kurds, Iraqis, Shiites, Sunnis – they’re all human blood. Sunnis believed that Mohammad’s successor should be Abu Bakr and Omar, and the Shias believed that his successor should be Ali. Why couldn’t they all play football together? It’s so sad and reminds me of the Catholic v. Protestant thing in Northern Ireland all over again. But still, you need to see this.
2.Auschwitz (German Death Camp), Oswiecim, POLAND
“Arbeit Macht Frei” – German Writing at their Death Camps.
I currently live in Poland. There’s not much I can say that hasn’t already been said or written. The German writing says it all. This was a killing machine. Innocent Jewish and Polish people were killed here by German and Austrian Nazis. Remember – Nazi isn’t a language, or a country. These were Germans. Don’t kid yourself.
3.Piazzale Loreto, Milan, ITALY
Read – Backpacking in Milan.
“Mussolini hangs from a butcher’s hook” – Manic Street Preachers.
At Ards Tech in Northern Ireland, I read about Benito Mussolini. Whilst doing that I spent a lot of time reading and listening to the Manic Street Preachers. This photo was one I saw back in those days…
It was taken at the end of the Second World War at Piazzale Loreto in Milan. Mussolini was hung here, butcher style. The irony of that wasn’t lost on anyone. Least of all the Italians, who have since removed any reference or attribution to that exact spot where Benito Mussolini was put on public display named and shamed after his death. While he might have tried to make Italy powerful, it came at a price. Let’s not bullshit about this – Mussolini invented fascism, or at least took on the leadership of a phrase coined by poet Filippo Marinetti.
I walked and stood at the spot where Mussolini was hung to dry. No marker, no plaque. Nothing. Left to ruin and left to dust. In 2021, Lazio signed Benito Mussolini’s great-grandson Romano Floriani Mussolini. History has been and gone.
4.Tuol Sleng, Phnom Penh, CAMBODIA
You cannot dress this place up either. It’s a death camp. I cannot believe it was 9 years ago that I was there – I was such a younger man then but I read “The Killing Fields” by Christopher Hudson and spent 8 days in Cambodia. Aside from being on the rip in Siem Reap and Phnom Penh and touring Angkor Wat, 3 days of that involved grim tourism.
Oddly, that day at Tuol Sleng, I chose my grimmest and most non descript clothes. It was a chilling, sad memory. No bright shirts or football kits today of joy. A dirty yellow and black cap, grey shorts, black socks and a drab creamy beige shirt. This was grim. Something very wrong happened here and you know it.
5.Rising Sun Bar, Greysteel, NORTHERN IRELAND
“Masked gunmen shouted trick or treat, then opened fire” – Ulster TV News Report (Halloween Night, 1993).
Whatever you were doing on Halloween night in Northern Ireland in October 1993, you will probably remember something else more vividly for the wrong reasons. This was the worst of the worst. It was an all time low. The Ulster Freedom Fighters took revenge for the previous week’s IRA atrocities (a Shankill Road fish shop was bombed) and they dressed up in boiler shoots and entered a Halloween fancy dress party in the Rising Sun Bar in the village of Greysteel.
This much is true – they shouted “trick or treat” and then shot 8 people dead, wounding a further 19. Around the same time, there were other killings in Belfast, Castlerock and other parts of Northern Ireland. I’ve parked outside this bar a few times to ponder and pray. I’ve never gone inside. I still look over at that bar every time I drive past it. It’s on the main road to Londonderry / Derry city. You’ll never forget it. I wrote a poem about this one back in the 1990s.
6.My Day in Stalin’s Town, Gori, GEORGIA
Read – This a trip to Stalin’s Town.
“This a present from Stalin’s reign, but you have your life again” – Artur Gorecki/Jonny Blair.
The famous Rafal Kowalczyk and I backpacked to Gori together on a hangover day in 2013. We had been on the rip in Tblisi the night before and had already planned to go to Stalin’s town the day after. It was a marshrutka ride from Tbilisi to get to Gori. We don’t look too bad here for the hangover…
We saw Stalin’s house, Stalin’s train, Stalin Avenue and a rare statue of the man himself. Things went wrong in the Soviet Union days and we know that Lenin didn’t want Stalin to take over. It’s all history now and Gori removed the statue of Stalin from the square, their most notorious and infamous son.
The museum was definitely worth the trip and we added another gory trip to our repertoire.
7.Genocide Centre, Kigali, RWANDA
Read – Touring Kigali, Rwanda.
Rwanda experienced a shocker. A horrific genocide campaign. I read all about it as a teenager growing up and I even collected stamps from Rwanda and looked out for their football results. The chilling aspect of it all for me was that the genocide basically started the day my brother Daniel was born, which was also the same day Kurt Cobain killed himself and the first day that Oasis had a live radio performance in the UK. All of that was 7th April 1994. In 2019, I stayed a few nights in Kigali the capital city with Russell and Malina.
One morning we headed to the Genocide Memorial Centre and park area around it. It’s the worst human massacre I have seen in Africa, even worse than the Hector Pieterson museum and Apartheid museums. IN 3 months, over half a million Tutsi were killed in the Rwandan Genocide.
8.Majdanek German Death Camp, Lublin, POLAND
Read: My Trip to Majdanek.
“It’s 12 o’clock till midnight, there must be someone to blame” – Manic Street Preachers.
Sometimes I wasn’t alone on my gory horror trips. Panny accompanied me on a few of them. My Polish friends Rafal, Julia, Kasia and Malina were at some and here at unforgiving Majdanek, Lock in Lee Adams went with me.
9.The Ruined City of Agdam, ARTSAKH/NAGORNO KARABAKH
Read – My Trip to Agdam, Artsakh.
One of my scariest trips to date was my journey, again alone (as Panny didn’t want to go) to the city of Agdam. It’s hard to explain this – a city where nobody lives. A city in ruins because of the Karabakh War back in 1994. This was once an Islamic Azerbaijani city. Once the Armenians forced the Azerbaijanis out, they left the city in ruins. Nothing has happened here. It’s an eyesore.
And you’re not really supposed to be here. A tourist visa for Artsakh / Nagorno Karabakh is not meant to permit you here. Curiosity killed the cat. Weirdly, the only Azerbaijani football team to make the group stage of European football is Karabakh – named after this region and whose home stadium was once here – in the ruins of Agdam.
10.The Killing Fields, Choeung Ek, CAMBODIA
Read – My Trip to the Killing Fields.
Cambodia is an eye-opener. 2 million people were killed in the Khmer Rouge genocide campaign. It’s all brutal. We headed out to Choeung Ek, the Killing Fields.
11.The Tsitsernakaberd Genocide Museum, Yerevan, ARMENIA
Armenia has a tragic history. Currently, they have two countries on either side with no open borders – Turkey and Azerbaijan. It all links back to the Armenian Genocide. I visited the museum in Yerevan and it doesn’t make for a happy trip.
12.Stutthof German Death Camp, Stutowo, POLAND
Unfortunately this is the third entry in Poland on this list and they are all German Death Camps from the 1930s – 1940s when the German (and Austrian) Nazis tried to take over the world.
13.A Night in Hitler’s Town, Branau Am Inn, AUSTRIA
“This is a low” – Damon Albarn.
This was actaully not for the faint hearted as it is probably the most horrific one on this list. I slept in a prison converted into a hostel in Hitler’s town. Yes, I did that. No other travel blogger has written about spending a night in that prison before. Perhaps I was wrong to do that, I don’t know anymore. But I did it – I slept at Das Alte Gefängnis. This was once a prison in Braunau Am Inn – Hitler’s hometown in Austria which sits across the border from Kirchdorf Am Inn and Simbach Am Inn in Germany. I crossed the bridge and saw both towns.
For me the saddest part of it all was that Adolf Hitler’s birthtown of Braunau Am Inn is actually very nice. It has a beautiful main street, very friendly locals, a few lively bars and is calm and peaceful.
A chunk of rock outside his birthplace is all Hitler gets.
14.Sunday Bloody Sunday, The Bogside, Free Derry Corner, NORTHERN IRELAND
Read – I haven’t written about Free Derry or Londonderry/Derry yet.
“How long must we sing this song?” – Paul Hewson.
As much as I don’t want to put my beloved home country of Northern Ireland multiple times on this list – we can’t hide the truth. I grew up in a country drenched in hate, terrorism and war. Paramilitaries roamed the streets. Bombs, shootings, petrol bombs, kneecappings were all too commonplace in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s in beautiful Northern Ireland.
Free Derry with its mural is the area where Sunday Bloody Sunday happened back on 30th January 1972. Local civilians who were protesting were shot dead by the British Parachute Regiment. Northern Ireland has never been the same again.
15.WTC Path, Ground Zero, 9/11 Site, New York City, USA
Read – My trip to Ground Zero.
“All free souls beware, a moon is in my head” – Ian McCullough.
There was a smell that lingered. I didn’t feel happy here. I got the NYC subway all alone in 2007 to WTC Site Path, ground zero – the place where the twin towers once stood.
16.H1 and H2 in Puzzling Hebron, PALESTINE
“The Sharif don’t like it. Rockin’ the Casbah” – The Clash.
Hebron has for many years been a “flashpoint area” in the Israeli- Palestine conflict. My day tour was expertly organised by Abraham Tours and we arrived in Hebron by bus. We had the added benefit of getting a tour of the H1 Palestinian Side in the morning, with a Palestinian guy. Then after lunch we got a tour of the H2 Israeli controlled Side in the afternoon, with a Jewish Israeli guy.
17.Hillsborough, Sheffield, ENGLAND
“Justice for the 96” – Hillsborough Justice Campaign.
As a football fan, I always wanted to visit Hillsborough and try and understand the sadness of the fateful FA Cup Semi final of 1989 here in Sheffield, England. I watched the entire event unfold live on television as a child watching the Nottingham Forest v. Liverpool 1989 FA Cup Semi Final here. An event that is not known for football but for the Hillsborough Disaster. Scarily for me, when I would finally go there, we were in the Leppings Lane end – yes we were in the end where it all happened – where those people lost their lives. I was here as an away fan – supporting AFC Bournemouth.
The weird thing is that all the photos I have from our trip to Hillsborough, I am smiling in them. That feels odd for me now. Even though AFC Bournemouth won the match that night (a comfortable 2-0 away win on the 17th March 2004), there was still an eerie sadness in it all. People perished here and life seems to carry on. We can only blame the police for this atrocity. Though Sheffield Wednesday’s stadium even now isn’t the most safe.
18.Sina Football Stadium, Masar e Sharif, AFGHANISTAN
You probably didn’t expect a football stadium to be placed in the most gory sites list, never mind two of them. I watched a football match here at Sina stadium in Masar e Sharif with Mohammed Reza (himself once an under 19 international for Afghanistan) and Noor, my guide. I thought it was fun, it was the second sport I watched in Afghanistan (after Buzkashi). But this was more brutal than that – this stadium was once used by the Taliban to arrest, torture and kill people. The reality hit.
The place was beautiful – sunset in behind, two teams playing football happily, a few hundred onlookers. I was a bit sad to hear the history of this stadium, and this country. It deserves better. Afghanis are really nice people!!
19.Genocide Museum, Sarajevo, BOSNIA-HERZEGOVINA
Unfortunately this list is full of deaths and genocides. A much more recent one occured in the Balkans. Ethnic cleansing here was done in smaller death houses. The calculated and callous campaign by the Serbs meant Bosniaks (Bosnian-Herzegovinan Muslims) were almost wiped out by the Serbs from 1992 to 1995.
20.Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, UKRAINE
I have saved a really grim one until the end here. You knew it was coming. Chernobyl. I’ve put it in as one point on here, but in reality all of these places were grim and Pripyat and Kopachi could have been two separate entries. You can read about my trip in these 10 extensive posts –
How to get a permit for Chernobyl
Backpacking in Chernobyl Part 1 – Chicane Kiev
Backpacking in Chernobyl Part 2 – Arrival at the CEZ
Backpacking in Chernobyl Part 3 – Chernobyl Town
Backpacking in Chernobyl Part 4 – Duga Radar
Backpacking in Chernobyl Part 5 – Kopachi
Backpacking in Chernobyl Part 6 – Reactor Number 4
Backpacking in Chernobyl Part 7 – Pripyat
Backpacking in Chernobyl Part 8 – Lunch in the CEZ
Backpacking in Chernobyl Part 9 – Leaving the CEZ – Radiation Checks
21.Robben Island, SOUTH AFRICA
Read – My trip to Robben Island.
Three months after COVID 19 began, I found myself in South Africa again. Though I had already backpacked this country in 2011, on that trip I was overlanding the east side incorporationg Soweto, Johannesburg, Durban and a few other places. Now it was time to tour Cape Town, check out the Cape of Good Hope, penguins at Simonstown and the grim reality of Robben Island.
We saw Nelson Mandela’s prison cell and the tour was given by a former inmate here. I just felt so sad about it all. What’s more is the day I went there, I had food poisoning and was ill.
I could have written about a few more places, but 21 seems concise and okay for now.
“Don’t have nightmares, do sleep well” – Jill Dando.
My other stories with a horrific history to them, down the years of my travels:
- Touring Pripyat, Chernobyl, Ukraine
- Touring Chernobyl Town, Ukraine
- Touring Saddam Hussein’s House of Horrors, Iraq
- Backpacking to Agdam, Nagorno Karabakh
- Tour of German Concentration Camp Auschwitz I, Poland
- Tour of German Concentration Camp Birkenau, Poland
- Tour of German Concentration Camp Stutthof, Poland
- Genocide Museum in Yerevan, Armenia
- A Trip to Stalin’s Town, Gori, Georgia
- Killing Fields, Cambodia
- Hanoi Hilton/Hoa Lo Prison, Vietnam
- Backpacking in the Most Dangerous City in the World
- A Night in the Most Bombed Hotel in Europe
- Tuol Sleng Concentration Camp, Cambodia
- Post Office in Gdańsk, Poland where World War II began
- Westerplatte where World War II began
- Genocide Museum in Sarajevo, Bosnia
- My Most Horrific Travel Moments
Here are some of my videos from those grim places: