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I was delighted when, as a member of the Amazon Vine programme*, this book popped up on my list to order. I am a big fan on the Lonely Planet Guide Books and this seemed a bit different from the norm. The book is entitled Badlands: 'A Tourist on the axis of evil', and is written by Lonely Planet's founder Tony Wheeler. It features chapters on Tony's experiences travelling in some of the less hospitable (allegedly) countries on Earth: Afghanistan, Albania, Burma (Myanmar), Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea and Saudi Arabia.
Each country has a chapter and lasts for around the 20-30 pages mark. As a general rule of thumb Wheeler discusses the country's history and its entitlement to be included alongside his experience in a semi-recent visit. Of course it is not as straightforward as saying they had a nutter for leader for the last few decades. Many have had a variety of incompetents in charge and each new one may have made changes, but seemed to be lacking in a view of the bigger picture, often reacting to something created/caused by his predecessor, rather than developing the economy or ensuring adequate healthcare for its poorer citizens for the longer term. Wheeler doesn't bog us down with dry facts and figures but intersperses his personal observations and experience into a succinct and accessible narrative. He looks at human rights issues as well as foreign and economic policy without sounding like your old geography teacher. He also looks at the positives in these countries (often the people) and doesn't dwell on the negatives. A lot of his findings surprised me (and him) and I found this an informative and enjoyable read.
There can be some debate as to the choice of countries to be included. I looked at going to Albania in 2011, there isn't a great deal of infrastructure as far as travelling around is concerned but it appears that they are open and welcoming of tourists these days. Whilst Albania has had a number of incompetents in charge during the Cold War era, I don't think it currently holds a great threat to the rest of the world. Cuba, likewise, accepts tourists (unless they are flying from the United States - but that is a US thing, not a Cuban thing) and has a high level of literacy and education and healthcare but qualifies as evil if you consider the poverty and opportunities available to the locals compared to the International visitors. Interesting as it is to read about these places, I think these two may have been the weakest in the selection (or less-evil). There are plenty of other candidates.
At the end of the book are two other chapters. One focuses of Wheeler's personal Evil Meter TM looking how the countries could be categorised. He considers how a country treats its own citizens, links to terrorism and acts of aggression/interference to other countries. This section is fairly subjective, as I didn't always agree with his opinions, but it gives you something to think about. The final chapter compares the selected bad lands with some First World countries as well as looking at a further top ten contenders.
The book was published in 2010 and things have changed in the world since the, as a number of dictators and despots have died or been removed. However, the vast majority of these destinations are still inaccessible to the vast majority of people, especially if you wish to travel independently. Plus, as Wheeler has taken a long view, the history of these places is still relevant, and a change of leadership often makes little difference in the relative short term.
The book also contains a number of colour photos. These are not professional stock photos but photos taken by Wheeler himself. Not necessarily of the key monuments and sites, but of his day to day interactions and things like abandoned Soviet era tanks (Afghanistan). There are usually 1-2 pages per country, and the photos are quite small. I don't think I would miss them if they weren't there as the writing is of a high enough standard to draw you enough of a picture.
Overall I would highly recommend this book for fans of travel writings and those interested to learn more about the countries selected. It is not a comprehensive account of these countries, by any means, but it makes a good introduction.
* An invitation only programme for top rated reviewers.