As a freelance reporter specializing in the Middle East and Central Asia, I often find myself in I-could-have-died situations
As a freelance reporter specializing in the Middle East and Central Asia, I often find myself in holy-shit-I-almost-pooped-my-pants-because-I-could-have-died situations. The stories I cover might be both extraordinary and terrifying, but the question I get asked more than any other is “Where do you sleep when you’re over there?” I usually deadpan: “Motel 6 if I can find one. If not, I’ll splurge for La Quinta.” If the person looks at me with confusion, that probably means I’m not dealing with a total moron, so I’ll say, “Just kidding,” and tell them about a few of the most notable places I’ve stayed during my travels through the world’s conflict regions.
Quetta, Pakistan ($8 per night, tropical fish included)
The Japan is my favorite hotel in the world. During check in, Muhammad the front-desk clerk informed me that if I booked for a week I could have the “room with the fish.” That was nice—until I realized Muhammad was going to come into my room every morning at seven to feed them.
Unsurprisingly, there are few foreigners in Quetta; it’s located near the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, an area Islamabad has forbidden journalists from entering, and, rumor has it, the current home of one-eyed Taliban leader Mullah Omar. The city is also a putrid melting pot of Sunnis, Marxist Baluchs, Shiite fighters, and Christian Punjabis—and they all hate one another. It’s fairly peaceful in the daytime, but nights are often marred by gunfire. Frequently you’ll hear three shots in a row—an assassination, two shots to the head, one to the chest. The chatter the next day, over a breakfast of green tea and lentil soup, usually goes something like, “Last night they assassinated Muhammad blah-blah-blah, tribal chief of the blah.” That’s usually my cue to scram and try to interview the next Muhammad on my list before he gets blown away.
Baghdad, Iraq ($50 per night paid in advance, complimentary breakfast, wi-fi)
Although Baghdad is still far from the safest area of Iraq, the chance of being kidnapped has decreased over the past two years. With that in mind, last February I spent a few nights at the Sabeel, fairly confident I wasn’t going to die. Baghdad might not be as dangerous as it once was, but I don’t think the city will ever be able to shake off the bad vibes of a female soldier finger-gunning the genitals of naked prisoners with bags over their heads.
As in Quetta, gunshots wake you throughout the night, which could signify anything from a “selective” murder to the police using improvised pest control to curb the stray dog population. It’s usually the latter. Things won’t be back to normal here for a long time, evidenced by the fact that journalists are still advised to change hotels frequently to avoid being targeted by kidnappers. My advice to freelance journalists is to stay the fuck out of Baghdad altogether. It’s crazy expensive, and stories from Iraq don’t pay anymore.
The Governor of Helmand province’s guest house,
GOVERNOR OF HELMAND PROVINCE’S GUEST HOUSE
Lashkar Gar, Afghanistan ($50 per night, half board)
The best thing about staying here is that the governor of the most fucked-up province in the country is literally right next door. This makes it fairly easy to get an interview with him. On the downside, you’re sleeping only feet away from one of the Taliban’s primary targets. Good news is the guest rooms are in the basement, facing the interior courtyard, slightly diminishing your chances of being killed in a mortar attack.
There are significantly fewer troops on the ground in Afghanistan these days. The Canadians were the latest to leave, and the coalition has passed control of Lashkar Gar, the capital of Helmand province, to the Afghan army. And as NATO draws down, the Taliban is returning and farmers are going back to growing massive fields of poppies. In other words, visiting hours are over. Afghanistan, you will be missed. I’m planning one last visit before the fundies come back and shut the country off to the world for another decade.
Kabul, Afghanistan ($20 per night)
Until the press gets kicked out of Afghanistan, I’ll keep staying at this legendary hotel. There’s something soothingly familiar about its barred windows and padlocked iron doors. It’s even recommended by Lonely Planet, at least according to a sign in the foyer. Centrally located, it’s just a stone’s throw away from Chicken Street, where you can spend hours browsing classic Afghan souvenirs, such as burkas, carpets with RPG motifs, Kalashnikovs, and Russian-made digital watches from the 80s.
Gaddafi’s Former VIP residence
GADDAFI’S FORMER VIP RESIDENCE
Nalut, Libya (free, all-inclusive)
OK, this place didn’t have any water or electricity, and rocket fire kept me awake all night, but how could anyone pass up the opportunity to sleep in a galleon bed? Out of all the world’s insurgents, the Libyan rebels get top marks for their hospitality to foreign journalists. It might be because they’re desperate to disprove all the Gaddafi propaganda about them being Al-Qaeda and/or drug addicts. Still, I have to say it was a bit weird being the only guest in a building originally designed to house up to 500 friends of the Gaddafi regime. Every time I got up take a piss, I felt like Sean Connery in Outland, waiting for the bad guys to show up. After two nights of interplanetary loneliness, I switched to Nalut’s Media Center, where I slept snuggled up with the debris of the Grad and Katyusha rockets fired over the previous weeks. And there was free satellite internet access. Nice one, Libyan rebels!
Vanq, Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh (free to foreigners)
For a relatively small cost and close to zero risk, you could do worse than visiting one of Eastern Europe’s “frozen conflicts.” As a bonus, visitors receive a visa stamp on their passports from a nation that doesn’t officially exist. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, dozens of new countries sprang up in Eurasia. Some of these are half-official (Abkhazia, for instance, is recognized by Russia, Nicaragua, Venezuela, and the tiny Pacific islands of Vanuatu and Nauru), and others, like Nagorno-Karabakh, are ignored by everyone.
Aside from its ambiguous sovereignty, Nagorno-Karabakh is also home to ambiguous hotels like the Eclectica. Its owner, Levon Hairapetyan, is a local who made his fortune overseas. Upon returning to Vanq, he funded the country’s largest-ever mass marriage ceremony. Receiving $2,500 each, 675 couples were married in a traditional Armenian service, with an additional $2,000 promised to their first child, $3,000 for the second, $5,000 for the third, $10,000 for the fourth, and so on. There is a catch, though: If a couple divorces, they have to pay all the money back. But it seems like a nice enough place. I visited in 2005 and was fed complimentary sushi for dinner and stayed the night for free. Now that’s a fucking hotel.