Michael von Külmer has been a travel addict since he was 13. He spent all his energy, time and money for that dream – to see the world as it is, first by reading travel reports, back then usually printed by travellers themselves. And by writing to embassies and all Tourist Offices with an address in Germany – back in the 70ies getting information was not that easy. So despite being an official, he managed to be more than eight years on the road by taking unpaid leave. He has visited more than 700 regions on Nomad Mania and over 130 UN countries.
What are three of your favourite countries, and why?
Japanese people are among the most amiable, helpful and polite people you can find anywhere. When I was stranded with some fever at a bus stop in Kyushu on my cycling trip from Soul to Tokyo, not knowing what to do next, a Japanese cyclist appeared from the opposite direction on a fully packed bike and immediately mutated into my guardian angel. He cycled 30 kilometres back with me to where he came from and organized a hotel room for us both as well as medicine for which the pharmacist didn’t accept any money! He left me alone the next day only after I assured him I’m 100% fit again. The beauty of Japanese gardens, temples and shrines is hard to beat. So are the food and that endless kilometres of gorgeous coastline.
When I arrived in Bangkok in 1988 for the first time, I fell in love with Thailand and its people within hours. These smiles, these easy laughing people and the lifestyle and the culture with all these beautiful golden temples. That’s why I chose Bangkok as my place for law internship two years later. “Working” for three months in this fascinating city definitely was one of the highlights of my life.
Again it’s the warm-hearted people I always enjoy in Turkey. Where are you invited to a free tea in a bank or shop even if they know you will not buy anything or told by policemen to enjoy their warm office with them like in the draughty bus terminal of Erzurum? Or get a handshake instead of a ticket by the traffic police? When we arrived in Rize, just coming from Georgia, we needed to change money. I just asked the hotel where I could do it. Without hesitating, an employee took us on tour around town – all banks turned out to be closed, so he asked a shop owner to do it for us – for the ordinary rate.
The landscapes of Anatolia are just fascinating. Especially in autumn, when the grass is brown, and the mountains are already covered with snow, this endless open scenery is captivating! And as a history buff, I enjoy those ubiquitous archaeological places. Last but not least, Turkey is the gateway to my best overland trips to the orient, starting with the sounds of the muezzins in the bazaars of Istanbul.
It’s not discovered by travellers yet – the tourist visa is entirely new! While Arabs are very hospitable in general, here you will have incredible experiences. Once we wanted to pay our bill in the restaurant, but the waiter rejected. Quite confused, we found out after a while that a local we hadn’t noticed so far in the other end of the restaurant already had paid our bill!
In another eatery, the friendly local insisted on showing us an old village “nearby “, which turned out to become a half-day trip to a gorgeous secret in the mountains of Southwest Saudi Arabia, which we would have missed otherwise! He joined us in our car and in the evening he had to take a 3-hour-bus ride home! Plus stunningly beautiful desert landscapes, perfect safety and infrastructure for road trips: Saudi Arabia truly is a traveller’s dream!
China, Oman, Morocco, Iran, United Arab Emirates, Uzbekistan, Syria, Namibia, Iceland, Croatia, Italy, Chile, Argentina, and Russia.
What are three of your favourite travel moments, and why?
Overland from Qinghai to Tibet back in 1988
At that time, China still was as poor as Kenya, and the road from Golmud to Lhasa was pretty basic. We had to take a CITS minibus, more a wreck than a car – and for the last 100 kilometres or so, it had to be towed by a military jeep! A lonely road through gorgeous scenery. In two days we didn’t see a foreigner, just Tibetan shepherds and some truckers. One highlight was the night in a guesthouse in a military camp where we had dinner with friendly soldiers. An experience gone forever in modern China.
The train ride from Iran to Pakistan in 2005
We were lucky enough to arrive in Zahedan (Southeast Iran) just a day before the fortnightly train to Quetta left. Impossible to get reliable info beforehand. Even in the morning of the departure day nobody could tell us anything, the station was closed. In the afternoon, the station master opened for us and a Pakistani couple with tons of luggage, the only passengers for that train. After hours of playing table tennis with the station master, the train finally arrived from Pakistan, and the whole crew greeted us. Waiting was definitely worth it: The 47 hours ride with that freight train with two almost empty passenger carriages was a unique experience, although you had to remove loads of dust from the hard benches by yourself – 3rd class only! The train driver came and told us how much time we have to walk around town during our stops. We even stopped at a wedding in a village. Our friendly bodyguard, an armoured policeman, never left us alone.
Road from Van to Dogubeyazit, Turkey
My first road trip in October 1987, so far from home, should take us to Iran, but we failed to get the visa. As a sort of compensation, we wanted to come as close as possible to the Iranian border. From Van, we took a rough border track to Dogubeyazit through some wild volcanic mountain scenery, got stuck in the snow and lost the way in villages with no signs. We didn’t meet one car and entertained the friendly young soldiers with our passports at the checkpoints on the way. My first adventure so far!
What are three of your worst travel moments, and why?
Baboon attack in South Africa
You hear a lot about crime in South Africa, but in the Cape of Good Hope National Reserve, we felt perfectly safe during our picnic with boiled eggs from home – it was our first day in South Africa! Until a huge male baboon appeared suddenly behind the rocks, threatened me with his huge teeth and took my small backpack with a camera and films. Luckily he let it go after I started throwing stones at him. Picnicking in baboon areas is definitely no lasting fun.
Robbery in Kenya
Well, it was a terrible idea to put my small backpack with all my slide films of my first great Africa trip on the street between my legs. At that bus stop of the airport bus in Downtown Mombasa in October 1989, at dawn. A man came and ran away with it. No chance. He knew we couldn’t even go to the police. Our flight wouldn’t wait for us. I am still suffering from that loss! And I will never ever use public transport to airports again in countries with poor safety! Also, only take reliable taxis. A taxi driver in Lima, Peru, warned us not to flag down a cab on the street. He must have known – he was a policeman in his first job!
Landslide in Bhutan
Bhutan must be one of the safest countries in the world. But on the way back from Thimpu to India, in the dry season of 2014, just a few meters in front of our car, huge rocks dropped on our road, leaving us in a dust cloud after we had just stopped in time. A cool local managed to clear a passage, and we speeded through the danger zone. Frightening. On the other hand, we visited the most dangerous country concerning murder rate in 2016, El Salvador, without problems. Statistics are not always applicable.
What are three of your best travel tips?
My beloved Mosquito Dome
My freestanding mosquito net that fits on hotel beds changed my travel life completely—no more struggling to fix that colossal mosquito net without destroying the hotel room walls. No cockroaches visiting you in the night, using the loosened net as a ladder. No more bedbugs feasting on you. But don’t make that mistake and take that hotel blanket inside; those fleas in Ethiopia were amused about me to do so! And you can’t forget your money belt in hotel rooms anymore – if you take it inside.
During flights, put all essential travel equipment in your hand baggage!
On our flight to Ethiopia, my checked-in backpack got lost. In Addis, I spent hours trying to buy essential equipment. Unfortunately, it was impossible to find any sun cream or mosquito repellent, which can be a nightmare in malaria areas and sunny highlands! I bought special refillable 100 ml plastic bottles for suncream (maximum size for hand baggage) for that purpose.
Travel with children
Don’t hesitate to travel with kids. We went with our son to Syria and Jordan in 1997 when he was almost 5. It was a great experience. Strangers gave him sweets, and the Jordan border official even kissed him! Especially Asia is mostly safe, and people are so kid-friendly that it gives you a lot of unique opportunities to socialize. Just avoid areas with tropical diseases.
Do you have any favourite hotels or restaurants?
Krua Thai Restaurant, Dachauer Strasse, Munich (near the main station), Germany
It’s so typical Thai that you think you are in a Soi in Bangkok! Exquisite taste for little money.
Ateshooni Guesthouse, Garmeh, Iran
In a revived idyllic desert oasis in the Dasht-e-Kavir north of Yazd, you can enjoy the hospitality of the owners while living in an original mud-brick building.
Auberge Legzira, Morocco: Directly at a beautiful secluded beach near Sidi Ifni in South Morocco
It’s a dream, surrounded by rocks that glow red at sunset. The surrounding landscape is also excellent (but that’s pretty normal in Morocco, for me the most beautiful country in Africa).
Hotel Della Fortezza, Sorano, Tuscany, Italy
Spending a night in a dream castle in a medieval dream town not crowded by tourists? You can do that here at affordable rates.
Büyük Mardin Oteli, Mardin, Turkey
Lonely Planet is right when it praises the sensational views on the Old Town and the plains of Mesopotamia. Together with the sounds of the muezzin, it’s an oriental dream!
Do you have any favourite cities?
Bangkok, Kyoto, Dinkelsbühl (Germany at its best), Beijing, Cairo, Isfahan, Marrakech, Bologna, Padova, Sighisoara (Romania at its best), Damascus, Pingyao (China at its best), Suzdal (Russia at its best) – all cities with a solid local flair and beautiful old architecture.
What are some of the worst places you’ve stayed?
The Congolese Border town Nyanga at the infamous “road” from Gabon to the Republic of Congo
It is nothing more than a nearly overgrown muddy track on the Gabon side in 2015. Because the driver of our bush taxi wasted time in the morning and the Gabon border officials in Ndendé harassed us for no reason for hours, we arrived too late in Congo. So we had to stay in a “hotel “in the border town without electricity, water and toilets, in a windowless room without anything except a wooden bed and dirty mattresses.
Night train from Kasese to Kampala, Uganda
In 1989, that train was still running, but the tracks were already in cruel condition. We took “First Class “, a small 2-bed-compartment for privacy. To be alone from noise and other disturbances. But we were not alone. In the night, I noticed my girlfriend standing at the window. After some hesitation, she told me a huge cockroach had crept over her face. Soon we found out we were sharing that cabin with an army of those beasts! Spraying mainly helped, and a candle gave us some light.
First Class didn’t mean illumination at night, of course. In the morning, we looked forward to getting out, but the train was stuck in a small village. The train before us had derailed! In that village, you could buy only peanuts and tea. We had to wait there all day, so we had to spend another night in that “First Class “cabin. But spending nights in aeroplanes or buses is definitely the worst of all – better the most basic room shared with cockroaches as long as I have my Mosquito Dome!
If you can only choose one:
Favourite airline: Emirates.
Favourite airport: Istanbul International Airport.
Favourite city: Bangkok.
Favourite island: Iceland.
Favourite people: Japanese.
Favourite small town: Dinkelsbühl, Germany.
Favourite travel book: “Tod im Reisfeld (Death in the Rice Paddy) “(Peter Scholl-Latour). This famous brilliant German-French journalist and author of many books wrote about his countless trips to Indochina war hotspots – for me, he is an extraordinary kind of traveller.
Favourite travel movie: “Auf Achse Nach Kathmandu (On the road to Kathmandu)”, a German TV documentary from 1985 about a trip with old trucks to Nepal. Unfortunately not digitalized. It inspired me a lot.
Favourite travel website: Lonely Planet.