‘I could buy spices, a goat or a Kalashnikov’: Readers recall trips to places now off-limits

Sana'a, one of many great destinations lost to modern travellers
Sana'a, one of many great destinations lost to modern travellers - The Image Bank RF

Our recent feature on places now deemed off-limits by the Foreign Office (“10 great destinations lost to modern travellers”) triggered a flurry of correspondence from readers. Scores of you got in touch to recount trips to Roman ruins in Libya, souks in Damascus, jungles in Venezuela and enthralling cities in Iran. The glut of emails revealed two things: how extraordinarily well travelled many Telegraph readers are, and how tragic it is that so much of the world has been struck from travel maps in recent years due to war, unrest and extremism. Here we present just a small fraction of your responses.

Beetle mania

In 1978, we were living in Sokoto, Nigeria, and visited neighbouring Niger for our summer holiday. We travelled with our 10-month-old baby and two other families, driving in convoy for 300 miles in VW Beetles. We crossed the border and continued through the Sahel to Niamey, Niger’s capital.

Sightseeing at the Nigeria/Niger border
Sightseeing at the Nigeria/Niger border - Dee Murray

On arrival, the hotel staff denied having received our reservation letter, and we were given a room with a broken window. Apart from that, it was pure luxury: French food and a swimming pool. My diary extract for July 19 1978 reads: “Went to the museum, zoo and Hausa village, saw artisans at work and visited the shop – beautiful leather and silverware. Visited the large market, then Le Petit Marché.” Another highlight was walking halfway across Pont Kennedy and watching locals doing their laundry in the wide Niger River.

Dee Murray, Shropshire

Niger: not your typical summer holiday
Niger: not your typical summer holiday - Dee Murray

Bargain hunting in Caracas

Fifty years ago we were a young expatriate family living in Caracas, Venezuela. Our son was born there, at a clinic run by two brothers – an obstetrician and a paediatrician. Caracas was paradise, with a perfect climate. Our middle-class standard of living there has never been matched since, and Britain was held in high regard, remembered as having fought with Simon Bolivar in his struggle to liberate Venezuela from Spain.

A Venezuelan river crossing
A Venezuelan river crossing - Keith Pickering

Our car’s eight-litre engine consumed £2’s-worth of petrol a week, and weekends were spent on white, sandy beaches on a coast stretching for thousands of miles. We have indelible memories of the German-speaking Colonia Tovar, and of being flown by a business friend in his own plane, soaring above the surreal, tepui-filled Canaima National Park and the Angel Falls. We treasure our photographs to this day.

Keith Pickering, London

The daughter of Keith Pickering during the South American sojourn
The daughter of Keith Pickering during the South American sojourn - Keith Pickering

Persian hospitality

Iran – or Persia, as our guide Farad referred to it – provided an experience like no other. In our two weeks crossing from Turkey to Turkmenistan, he took us to places both famous (such as Isfahan, and Persepolis) and less so (cave villages and Roman ruins). Memories abound, such as being invited to his parents house for an exquisite evening meal with his extended family, staying in a subterranean hotel, and sitting late at night under the arches of an ancient bridge in Isfahan, listening to locals singing songs of old Persia.

The stunning city of Isfahan
The stunning city of Isfahan - Ed White

In this land of history, we walked in the steps of the Old Testament, visiting the tombs of Cyrus, Darius and Xerxes. We were welcomed by people with great zest for life surrounded by some of the most beautiful and fascinating history.

Ed White, Gloucestershire

Reader Ed White at the Tomb of Cyrus the Great
Reader Ed White at the Tomb of Cyrus the Great - Ed White

Leptis Magna by wheelbarrow

It was all because of a banana box. We had stopped at a roadside stall on the way to Leptis Magna, at the mouth of the Wadi Lebda in Libya, and I had somehow managed to trip over a semi-hidden box of bananas and break my ankle. My friends were very concerned that my tour of the ancient ruins was over before we had even arrived.

However, there was a wheelbarrow abandoned in the parking area. The man guarding the public lavatories gave me a square of carpet from his chair because the wheelbarrow was wet from recent rain. Meanwhile, another kind person pumped up the wheelbarrow’s flat tyre. My wonderful Libyan guide then pushed me around the amazing archaeological site, through water-filled ruts and squelching mud, and even summoned a friend to help lift me and my wheelbarrow up steps and over rocks.

My personally guided tour of spectacular Leptis Magna was a great – if painful – success.

Jill Selwood, West Sussex

Leptis Magna
Leptis Magna - Corbis Documentary RF

An adventurous quartet

Four of the places featured in your article I’ve been fortunate enough to visit.

My family was posted to Sudan in the early 1980s, and a small group of us travelled to the Meroe pyramids from Khartoum, including our four young children, camping under the stars en route. The pyramids were majestic, set among the golden sands – but their tops had been blown off, reportedly by the Italian adventurer, Giusseppi Ferlini, as it was thought there might be gold hidden inside. There were no tourists in the deserted landscape, just a few of our friends and their families, who all lived and worked in Khartoum or Omdurman.

The Meroe pyramids
The Meroe pyramids - Getty

Timbuktu is another place I’m familiar with, as I was a volunteer teacher in Mali from 1965-66. I and a few other volunteers made use of our Christmas and New Year holiday by trying to get to Timbuktu. It proved to be an incredible journey by local buses to Mopti, after which we boarded an engine-less boat, amid a throng of Malians, their pots and pans and animals. We were towed along the Niger River for several days, disembarking at Kabara where an ancient vehicle picked us up and transported us the last 10 miles.

Palmyra I have also visited. My husband was posted to Jordan and we often travelled to Syria (despite the long hours and vast amount of paperwork such a long journey involved). Damascus was a favourite haunt, the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world, where one would have to climb down to the bakeries with their Roman floors. It is such a fascinating city. We visited Palmyra, where we climbed a steep hill topped by a crumbling castle in the dark, to watch the sunrise light up the ancient stones.

Finally, we also went to St Petersburg – in 2002, to visit our son. He was working as a volunteer with Médecins Sans Frontières in Ingushetia, Russia. We met up with him in Moscow and travelled on the overnight train to St Petersburg – a wonderful city to explore, especially the Hermitage.

I feel so privileged to have visited all these intriguing destinations, now lost to modern travellers. Thank you for reigniting my memories.

Toni Duncan

Iran under canvas

September 1973 – I joined a band of fellow travellers at Heathrow Airport for a camping adventure around Iran. We flew via Istanbul to Erzurum in eastern Turkey, where we piled into two Ford Transit vans, passing Mount Arafat before crossing the border into Iran.

Iran was then a Western ally and ruled by the Shah, whose portrait was seen in every shop and café. Heading south past villages that made us feel welcome, we saw families travelling with their worldly goods, herding their flocks to the winter pastures, and swam in the Persian Gulf. Travelling north, we visited the rose city of Shiraz, mighty Persepolis, beautiful Isfahan with its teeming bazaars, and the modern metropolis of Tehran, before heading back into Turkey and home.

Six years later, the Shah was deposed and Iran turned against the West – but those three weeks will live long in my memory.

Richard Howell, West Sussex

Intricate architecture in Shiraz
Intricate architecture in Shiraz - The Image Bank RF

Magnificent mosques and Gaddafi’s jeep

In autumn 2009, we embarked on a Mediterranean cruise that took us to two countries that are now, alas, out of bounds to British travellers. Visiting Tripoli in Libya now seems like a surreal dream, but we really did see Colonel Gaddafi’s jeep incongruously displayed among the museum’s ancient artefacts. The highlight of Libya, though, was the extensive remains of the great Roman city of Leptis Magna; its sheer scale took our breath away.

Krak des Chevaliers
Krak des Chevaliers - Mike Redman

From Libya we sailed to Syria, for a day in Damascus which enabled us to visit the magnificent Umayyad Mosque, where the head of John the Baptist rests. After a memorable lunch at Leila’s restaurant, we followed in the footsteps of St Paul, down Straight Street to the home of St Ananias. But the crowning glory of the cruise was undoubtedly Krak des Chevaliers, the spectacular 13th-century archetype of all European castles. Sadly, it was a holiday never to be repeated.

Mike Redman, Isle of Wight

‘I could buy spices, a goat or a Kalashnikov’

Yemen, huge mountains, towering into a dusty blue sky, fertile valleys full of lush plants. Visiting this country was enchanting, wandering around markets heaving with every kind of merchandise. I could buy spices, nuts, vegetables, a goat or a Kalashnikov. Dinner in a fish restaurant in Taiz, where a little boy scrubbed the fish with a dirty rag before it was thrown into a fiery furnace and eaten off newspaper, with the sun, a brilliant red orb, setting in the background and the sound of the call to prayer echoing around the city. Next, Sana’a, with its beautiful ancient, many-storied clay buildings, ornately decorated in creamy white, inhabited for more than 2,500 years. It felt like stepping back into the past as we watched a camel driving a wheel to mill grain, in a little cavern amongst many others containing craftsmen and their wares, comprising a 2,000-year-old shopping centre.

Jane Gregory, Kent 

Not so dry Yemen

Off-limits travel? North Korea? Libya? Where do I start? My most surreal experience was in alcohol-free Yemen in the 1980s. We set out with our guides in two 4x4s for a long day’s drive that included a visit to the abandoned coastal town of Mocha (famous for its coffee). En route, we drove off-road to an isolated rock in the desert. From behind it, traders appeared and took our orders – but not for coffee.

After exploring the town, we headed back to the same rock – from which our alcoholic orders were again dispensed. Mine was several cans of Heineken labelled “Only for export to Puerto Rico”. We smuggled them into the next (dry) hotel we stayed at.

Michael Green, West Yorkshire

Falling for Venezuela

When they chased the last of the chickens off the runway, we were finally cleared for take-off and our Dakota thundered into the air. Vertical tepui mountains loomed unnervingly alongside as we flew down the valley. But at last, there it was, its full height obscured by wispy clouds: Angel Falls.

Anna Smith on her trip to Venezuela
Anna Smith on her trip to Venezuela - Anna Smith

This was just one of the wonderful experiences of our trip to Venezuela in 1998. We had trekked over the savannah, camping at the foot of Mount Roraima, climbing up through the orchids and hummingbirds of the cloud forest, across the face of the mountain, before emerging into the moonscape on the top. We waded along a riverbed of yellow jasper, met illegal miners deep in the forest, crossed into Brazil, heard the Easter Day sermon in Caracas cathedral and lazed on Caribbean beaches. These are vivid and happy memories of a special time.

Anna Smith, Suffolk

Mount Roraima
Mount Roraima - Alamy

Hindu Kush hike

Hitchhiking in 1968, two friends and I arrived in Afghanistan for an epic trek in the Hindu Kush, years before the Russian invasion. We hired a horse and a porter to carry our gear and travelled perilously beside flooding rivers and past lapis lazuli mines made famous by the mask of Tutankhamun.

Steady progress led us to the Anjuman Pass at 14,500ft. I sold my binoculars to a wealthy Afghan on his horse and our descent began. Nomads plied us with fresh yoghurt as we sat among deep-blue gentians. Lower down, where the streams coalesced, there were apricot and mulberry groves – a vision of paradise. Water mills, still working, straddled the nascent rivers.

Geoff Simmons, Herefordshire

Syrian snapshot

In November 1991 the cruise ship Orpheus docked at Latakia in Syria, to be met by a band and TV crew, as the first tourist ship to dock after the restoration of diplomatic relations. Over the next few days we were welcomed wherever we went. The highlights for me were Aleppo, Apamea and Krak des Chevaliers. Watching the destruction of Aleppo on TV brought back to mind not just the sights, but also the people, who greeted us with smiles everywhere. The only downside was the endless display of posters of Assad senior, which decorated every blank wall or pillar. Many of these experiences are lost, possibly forever, but remain in my memory and photographs.

Mairi Macdonald, Warwickshire

Syria was once a popular option for adventure travel
Syria was once a popular option for adventure travel - Mairi Macdonald

Surreal Korea

In 2013 we fulfilled an ambition to see the Arirang Mass Games in North Korea. They were spectacular, and the trip was extraordinary. We stayed on the 30th floor of the vast Koryo Hotel in Pyongyang, with only a few other guests. At night the view was strangely dark, with few lights in the blocks of flats.

The Arirang Mass Games
The Arirang Mass Games - Corbis News

The most sombre place we visited was the Kumsusan Memorial Palace – the mausoleum for Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il. Their embalmed bodies were reached by a travelator filled with silent North Koreans, softly sobbing. After a visit to Mount Kumgang, we returned to the Koryo – only to be checked back into the same suite, beautifully cleaned. Bizarrely, our half-finished bottle of water and two glasses were in the same place as when we left.

Gwen Godfrey, London

The women of Iran

Iran, 2019 – we were a diverse group of eight Western women with a young, female Iranian guide. Such contrasts: oppression and fear, but extraordinary antiquities, buildings, food and culture. So many women eager to talk to us and tell us, in lowered voices, about their hatred of the veil; so many children keen to practise their English. So many vivid memories: amazing Persepolis; pomegranate juice from the huge Tehran bazaar; the rose windows in the Shiraz mosque; an impromptu concert late at night under the arches of one of the Isfahan bridges, and, above all, the centre of World Heritage-listed Yadz, a maze of wonderful ochre buildings.

A violin workshop in Tehran
A violin workshop in Tehran - Deborah Terry

Peering through a dusty window revealed a woman making violins. Welcoming us in, she gave us tea and described her craft and a fulfilling life, her instruments and her escape to the wider world. And our guide? Now building a new life in Germany, without her husband and parents, but with freedom.

Deborah Terry, London

Mesmerising Niger

Niger in West Africa had never suffered from overwhelming tourist hordes. Indeed, it was always rather forgotten, outshone by neighbouring Mali and Burkina Faso as backpacker destinations for the more intrepid traveller.

Transportation and accommodation were basic in the extreme – necessitating, for example, travelling on lorries in more remote areas and overnighting in courtyards of large compounds. The rewards were extraordinary in terms of the scenery encountered in the desert, the ancient Songhai trading city of Agadez and the timeless Touareg camel trains still following the old trans-Saharan routes of their ancestors. Alas, this country is now cursed by the vicious insurgents of Boko Haram, who together with the latest military junta, have condemned Nigeriens to a bleak future. I hope that, one day, another generation can experience this mesmerising country.

Andrew R Williams, Middlesex