Karsten Stragies outside of the Luxembourg Airport in Findel
Photo: Matic Zorman
This September, Luxembourg resident Karsten Stragies plans on heading to Transnistria, a primary unrecognised state which split off from Moldova after the USSR was dissolved.
He’ll be going primarily to experience its Independence Day celebrations, which includes a Soviet-style military parade, along with vehicles from that era, and a Cossack-style barbecue.
“Besides the national holiday celebrations, I’m looking forward to the socialist architecture, the many opulent statues and war memorials,” Stragies says. “The place looks like a surreal socialist theme park… I’m drawn to its uniqueness.”
The trip will likely take place over a long weekend, around five days in total. Although he wanted to combine the trip with a visit to Moldova, all of his holiday time was already allocated.
It won’t be the first time Stragies is visiting an offbeat place. Last year, he was one of the tens of thousands to attend the military parade and mass games in Pyongyang, North Korea, on 9 September, marking the 70th anniversary of the country’s founding. But he may have stood out: he was wearing a Luxembourg Football Federation shirt bearing the double-tailed red lion emblem.
He even caught a glimpse of its leader, Kim Jong Un, at the mass games held at the Rungrado 1st of May Stadium. Stragies says it was easy to see how the country got swept up in the propaganda-fuelled day, especially given this was the first time North Korea had held its mass games in five years. “It was so mesmerising. Of course, it’s all propaganda, but many had tears in their eyes,” he says. “There were thousands of little kids doing pirouettes and somersaults, and you can imagine how difficult it would be to have children behave like that in such a big group.”
Tourists to North Korea are required to take a guided tour. Stragies had joined with the tour operator in China, but he had left Luxembourg even before knowing whether his entry visa to North Korea would be approved. As of 2013, tourists have been allowed to carry their cell phones with them, although these are carefully checked upon exiting the country. Stragies said he was actually more nervous leaving the country than entering it: his cell phone had picked up the Chinese signal at the border, and he saw a text from his girlfriend checking if he was alright. What’s more, he had snuck one of each of the won banknotes into a pair of packed trousers--not in his wallet, intentionally, given that it is illegal to take currency out of the country.
Normally, however, Stragies also has no problem travelling without tour guides. Within the last five years, he has travelled to Iran, Israel and the West Bank, Georgia and Armenia, to name a few. And some 10 years ago, he took the Trans-Siberian Railway throughout Russia, Mongolia and China.
But his biggest regrets? “I never went to East Germany, the DDR when it existed, or to the USSR, or Yugoslavia,” he says. “And I’ll never be able to go to those places. I felt major ‘fomo’ [fear of missing out] about those.”
Now 37, Stragies said he still wants to travel to offbeat places while he still can, knowing that one day, if he starts a family, he will have “less liberty, so I can save the ‘normal’ places for later”.