Oliver Cross: Give me the tourist trail and a nice cup of tea any day

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Wouldn’t it be good to stay a while in a place which hasn’t yet joined the modern world, where you’re unlikely to be jostled by crowds of tourists and where customs and beliefs are far removed from your own?

Would it heck as like. It would be like living in North Korea or some impoverished tropical country ruled by thugs. The truth is that places get packed with tourists because they are pleasant to visit – well usually; I’m not sure that ‘pleasant’ is the word for Blackpool or (though I believe it’s had a relaunch since I last visited) Benidorm. These belong in a special class of resorts also called Circles of Hell.

Still, they can be perfectly enjoyable if you’re young, borderline sociopathic and lack any aesthetic sense, and they’re certainly more fun than trekking through a muddy field in Normandy in search of the (rightly) undiscovered France.

Call me an unadventurous urbanite, but I have no great yearning to discover the undiscovered nor to commune with the wilderness, which is wilderness for a reason. Everything about it – the great swathes of almost lifeless sands, the impenetrable mountains and jungles, the ice sheets – are signals that these are not places to visit, even if Inuits, Bedouins and aboriginal Amazonians think otherwise. Were I to go to Scotland, I might have a quick reconnoitre of the depopulated Highlands but I’d want to get back very quickly to a place full of people and culture, such as Edinburgh or Glasgow, and when did anybody reject the chance to visit Venice on the grounds that it was too touristy?

And all this has come to mind because my musical friend Dibbs has hatched a plan to visit, with his friend Jill, Mongolia, much of which lies in the great, barren Gobi desert. It is a fair-sized country (604,247 square miles, although that leaves me none the wiser) housing less than three million people – and actually ‘housing’ isn’t quite the right word because many of the inhabitants are nomads.

But Dibbs regularly arranges his travel plans around unusual musical instruments, so that he went to Hungary to master a little-known (in Yorkshire) eastern European wind instrument called the taragoto and, even more adventurously, and as explained in a previous column, to the badlands of Cambridgeshire to build an early-19th century clarinet.

Now the plan is to fly, via Moscow (assuming the Ukrainian difficulties haven’t scuppered things) or Beijing to Ulan Bator, an interesting capital city which, being populated by nomads, moved its location 28 times before arriving where it is today.

There, Dibbs will attend a two-week music festival during which he will master the Ever Buree, a curved, horn-like clarinet played only in Mongolia, eat huge amounts of meat (Mongolian males think eating vegetables is cissy), watch horse-riding displays and no doubt try some of the local booze, provided it’s not the first or 15th day of the month, when alcohol is banned.

Dibbs and Jill’s travels break all my rules about only visiting safe and dull places where you can get a nice cup of tea (which, incidentally, rules out most of continental Europe), but I think there’s a lot to be said for travelling with a mission – in Dibbs’s case to build up a world-class collection of baffling musical instruments hardly anyone else can play. Beats day trips to Filey.

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