Countries not influenced by Western culture and why you should visit them

There's a moment when you enter a truly foreign city, a fantastic realisation that dawns on you as you wander those alien streets for the first time: this is weird. This is different. Nothing makes sense.

There are some cities around the world where all of our cultural touchstones are there, where you can recognise shop brands on orderly sidewalks, understand the things people are saying and figure out how to get around. And then there are those cities where nothing seems familiar. Where the Western world has still not penetrated. Where the sense of disorientation and confusion is complete. 

For travellers, it's hard not to love those cities. 

HAVANA, CUBA

You don't recognise any of the shops in Havana, because at first glance it seems there are no shops in Havana. Certainly not in the old town, a place of crumbling colonial-era buildings and streets lined with fruit stands on old push carts. It takes a while to realise that the bare doorways here contain local food stores, or that there are thriving communities hidden behind those crumbling facades. Havana dances to the beat of its own drum – you just have to find the rhythm. 

PYONGYANG, NORTH KOREA

Unfortunately I'm yet to visit Kim Jong-Un's seat of power, but what an amazing city it would be. There are few places in the world so completely cut off from Western influence, where nothing is recognisable or the sort of thing you would define as "normal". This is going behind the modern iron curtain, to see an isolated world in which the West doesn't even exist. There are few of the traditional tourist sights in Pyongyang – the attraction is just being there.

CHITTAGONG, BANGLADESH

It's easy to fall into the trap of thinking that you understand Chittagong, that it will be just like any other city in the sub-continent, that you'll be able to find English speakers, and safe restaurants, and good hotels, and a simple way to get around the city to visit its sights. But you'd be very, very wrong. Chittagong is a world apart, a bustling, underdeveloped place where nothing is as you would expect. Prepare yourself. 

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LA PAZ, BOLIVIA

There's no other city like La Paz, clinging to a steep valley high in the Andes, its streets filled with bowler-hatted "cholas" – local women in traditional dress – and brightly coloured old buses honking their horns and belching fumes into the mountain air. Wander these streets and you'll find dried llama fetuses being sold at witchcraft markets, bizarre mechanical odds and ends being peddled at ramshackle old shops, and local restaurants serving food you've never heard of before. And adding to all of this disorientation is the fact that you're 4000 metres above sea level and can barely breathe. It's an experience. 

BAKU, AZERBAIJAN

There are a few things you'll recognise. There's a Bulgari shop in Baku, and Gucci, and Tom Ford. There's even a Lamborghini dealership. But the rest of the city makes little sense. The streets are choked with a riot of traffic. The buildings are Parisian, and then they're English, and then they're ultra-modern, and then they're row after row of communist-era flats. The pollution is cloying. People sell black-market caviar on the street. There are extremely rich people, and extremely poor people. And you have no idea where you fit in.

TOKYO, JAPAN

It's sleek and it's modern, and heavily influenced by the West, and yet Tokyo is very much a city apart. From figuring out how to use the subway to figuring out how to order food, there's much to baffle first-time visitors to the Japanese megalopolis. It's huge and anonymous, and yet strangers will take the time to be friendly. It's bustling and brash, and yet there's sanctuary in tiny teashops or super-cool whisky bars. It takes a long time to make sense of Tokyo.

FEZ, MOROCCO

There's a camel head – the head of an actual, formerly alive camel – hanging from a hook in the market, its tongue lolling disturbingly to one side. The head marks the fact that the butcher here sells camel meat. It's effective, if nothing else. And there are stranger sights in Fez's ancient medina. Goods are transported by donkey and cart. Spices are piled high. Hunks of liver and mince sizzle on hotplates. The stench of the leather tannery wafts through. People in traditional dress bustle through the labyrinthine alleys the same way they have done for centuries. Fez is about as far from modern the cities you know as possible.  

Have you travelled to cities Western culture hasn't reached? Share your experience by leaving a comment below.

Email: b.groundwater@fairfaxmedia.com.au

Instagram: instagram.com/bengroundwater

See also: The 15 inescapable truths of travel
See also: How travel can change you for life
See also: Friendliest countries for tourists

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