The online magazine The Velvet Rocket is atypical for a successful brand under the “travel” umbrella in that it avoids reviewing destinations or making suggestions on where to tour. Instead, founder Justin Ames and his team of four contributors immerse themselves in places that are strange, isolated, stigmatized, or otherwise unexplored.
“If you look at what has happened to the budget of newspapers, they’ve just been massacred, so there really aren’t many people out there who are able to do what we do,” Ames tells BTR.
In a recent piece, for example, Ames scouts the crumbling minarets of the long-deceased Sultan Bayqara, in Herat, Afghanistan. The reader learns that in order to enter the ruins, you must first cross a minefield, which the city’s present-day police refuse to do. As such, the minarets are a popular stomping ground for junkies. But amidst the scattered syringes and cigarette butts, the remains of a queen lie encased in a beautifully carved stone coffin. As Ames writes, “in any Western country, this would be a crown jewel for a national museum. In Afghanistan, it is left to decay in the elements. And could be stolen at any time by someone with a truck.”
Another piece offers a photographic journey through the camel market of Omdurman, Sudan. A sparse narrative intimates intriguing details, such as how, when a camel is sold, one of its front legs is bound with rope to indicate that it’s no longer for sale.
You might say that The Velvet Rocket writers travel like Clark Kent, blending into their environment in order to understand it more profoundly. Ames explains that when they go somewhere new they are careful to discard any preconceptions, especially those touted by mainstream media, and to be active participants in the milieu. They speak to and photograph locals, stay at someone’s house rather than a Marriott, and shop at the corner store instead of ordering room service.
That’s how Ames discovered the “bizarre, slightly creepy, but rather charming” restaurant Pyongyang Okryu Gwan, in Deira, Dubai. The establishment is run by the North Korean government, and its designer spent nearly four decades in prison after being convicted of espionage in South Korea shortly after it opened.
The Velvet Rocket also publishes personal histories of the people who textbooks overlooked. Take, for example, the story of Shamil, a Chechen soldier who fought with a resistance of 600 men to defend his village from Russian forces in the Second Chechen War. In a video interview between Shamil and Ames, the former explains that even though the Chechens and Russians were enemies, they often obtained their weapons by bribing Russian soldiers who were looking to make extra money.
Eventually, Shamil was injured, captured, and imprisoned. Now, decades after his release, he acts as the director of a charity for the disabled.
Even the somewhat tongue-in-cheek section on The Velvet Rocket’s website labeled “‘Normal’ Places We Go” leads readers to the fascinating exposé of an American concentration camp, a flying adventure over Lake Tahoe with a former Top Gun pilot, or a photographic essay of the men, women, and children of South Africa.
“I do think there’s a void that we’re filling,” Ames says, and that certainly appears to be the case, as his work has been featured in publications such as The Guardian, Vice, and the BBC, to name just a few.
“Ultimately, we’re not making any money from this,” he concludes. “It’s a labor of love.”
For more from Justin Ames, tune into this week’s Twenty-Something Traveler.
Photo courtesy of Moyen Bren.