Where to Go, Why, and What to Read.

Travel ferociously. Get out there. Engage people. Witness events. Explore the world. Bust a move. See all you can see. But when you’re at home and calm, sanguine and reflective, back in the part of the house where people don’t come unless you invite them, in that one little spot where only you rule, that’s where you can see most clearly.

Back there in that room, I saw our trip to Sarajevo as a conceit. We decided we’d go and see the aftermath of war and then we would think about it. And we saw the burned out houses on the airport road. We saw children at play beneath a hand-painted sign warning of “snijper” fire over there, in that direction.

We stood on a hill above town with an old woman and her little granddaughter and a vast field of Muslim graves behind them. We took pictures of SFOR soldiers (NATO’s ‘Stabilization Force’) taking pictures. And in the end, we didn’t really understand it any better. Or at least, we didn’t Glean Wisdom.

I read and read, before and after Sarajevo, and we went to see it, and we had a view of the bombed out parliament building from the Holiday Inn hotel, where we paid in advance, in cash, in Deutschmarks, right up front, for our entire stay.


The parliament building from the Holiday Inn, Sarajevo.

The elevator opened to carpet ripped by gunfire.

The main reconstruction work in Sarajevo was in busting down curbs and rebuilding them with wheelchair ramps.

We walked up and down the open air Markale market where a random, direct shelling killed 68, wounded two hundred on a rainy Saturday in February, 1994 – the bloodiest attack in the then twenty-two month long conflict. We saw bricks and mortar blasted from the side of the hotel next door. People bustled about the market that day, selling flowers, buying fruit, and we took it all in, but still we didn’t Glean Wisdom.

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Laurence Mitchell in the Republic of Georgia: Guest Post


It's a pleasure to continue with another guest post from author Laurence Mitchell, this one dateline Tbilisi, Republic of Georgia (Read two reports from earlier on this trip, from Russia and Azerbaijan). Laurence is a photographer as well as an author, but since he's still out on the road, updating the Bradt Guide to Georgia, I'm augmenting his emailed remarks with photos from EarthPhotos.com.

Here's Laurence:

It is true to say that I have expereinced all four seasons on this trip. I arrived in Georgia at Lagodekhi, close to the borders with Daghestan (Russian Federation) and Azerbaijan, on a really hot day where the temperature was in the 30s (that's 80s for US readers). I spent only one night here but had time for a stroll in gorgeous hornbeam woodland that has deer, bears and all manner of woodland creatures – not that I saw any. Then I headed west to Telavi in to the heart of Kakheti, Georgia's wine region. The weather turned again here, becoming dull and grey.
Moving on to Tbilsi for a couple of days, I tried best to plan best my route around Georgia according to the most favourable weather, but it was not really great anywhere so I plumped for Borjomi (where the mineral water comes from) and spent a couple of days here staying in the spare room of a poor but friendly local family. On my second day here, I took a marshrutka up to Bakuriani, a nearby hill resort with slopes favoured by President Saakashvili. I returned by local train, which took nearly 3 hours to travel 45 kilometres down steep inclines through woods. Good value though - it cost just 2 Lari (£.0.60, $1) and one of the local lumberjacks gave me a bunch of grapes to eat. Now is vey much the season for eating grapes and every Georgian can be seen stuffing sweet purple fruit into their mouths in betwen cigarettes.
I backtracked slightly from here to Gori - Stalin's birthplace, whose massive statue has only recently (June this year, I think) been removed from the central square. Nevertheless, there seem to be plans to reinstall it in front of the Stalin Museum at some stage in the future. I visited the museum for the second time, having gone there previously in 2000, and once more marvelled at the many photos of the (apparently benign) dictator smiling at children and accepting gifts of flowers from Ukrainian girls. Not much sign of Trotsky or Krushchev it must be said. I passed on the opportunity to buy a bottle of Saperavi wine with his face on the label – it was tempting though.
The weather in Gori was foul – somehow fitting with its somewhat sinister – if airbrushed – history. I was the only diner in the Intourist Restaurant that night and made the mistake of ordering a pitcher of local Saperovi wine all for myself. It was so delicious that I drank it all, which was probably a bit of a miscalculation on my part. Georgians tell you that Georgian wine is so pure that it doesn't produce hangovers – yeah sure – and they probably think that Khachapuris don't make you fat either.

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More from Our Correspondent: Siberia and Azerbaijan

Great fun to relay with permission the following email from author Laurence Mitchell. He's a photographer too, but since he's still out on the road, updating the Bradt Guide to Georgia, I'm augmenting his emailed remarks with photos from EarthPhotos.com. Here's Laurence:

I am writing this from the very splendid vaulted atrium of a converted caravanserai in Sheki, Azerbaijan. I don’t suppose the original camel merchants ever envisaged that their overnight lodgings would ever have Wi-Fi!  It’s been converted into a hotel now – majestic surroundings although the rooms are rather austere, with even a touch of Midnight Express about them. I am informed that I have to relinquish my cheap room today as there is a big tour group arriving. Hard to imagine a tour group of any complexion coming to Azerbaijan but if you are going to visit anywhere other than Baku then I suppose Sheki might just be the place.

I arrived here yesterday after yet another long and exhausting journey but let’s first go back to Tomsk, which seems an age away now. Tomsk to Irkutsk required one whole day and two nights on a train but it was comfortable enough. I arrived at Irkutsk station at 1 am Moscow time, 6am local – it was very cold and still dark. I decided to head straight out to Lake Baikal and managed to get a marshrutka straight away. But it was even colder there, and by the time I had walked to my pre-booked homestay I was visibly shivering. 300526354_2001-listvyankatown01 Listvyanka, where I stayed, is a sort of low-scale Russian tourist resort but it was the end of the season and many places were either closed or thinking about doing so. Away from the coast road the village was really nice and rustic, with a pretty Siberian church and lots of typical wooden cottages that had cosmos and cabbages growing in the yard. A shame about all the noisy barking dogs. Fortunately, weather-wise, the next day was completely different – blue skies, sun but still pretty chilly – and I did a couple of good walks in the locale. Lake Baikal is big – very big (20% of world’s fresh water!) – but it is hard to get an impression of size when you are close up to it. Frozen solid for several months of the year, it certainly didn’t beckon me in for a bathe but, there again, I am pretty squeamish when it comes to cold water – and this IS cold.

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Caucasus Concerts, Tbilisi Tourism, Huge, Massive, Enormous Talents

Cdb Feel like heading off on a slightly-off-the-beaten-path holiday? How about Georgia? Okay, wait: What if they throw in Chris de Burgh!?

Talks are ongoing between the government of the Republic of Georgia and MTV to bring televised music festivals to Batumi, on the Black Sea coast. EurasiaNet tells us that the Georgian president, Mikheil Saakashvili, has "vigorously sought to promote tourism along the Black Sea Coast. The acts playing at these concerts ranged from unknowns to has-beens: Anglo-Irish balladeer Chris de Bourgh — a one-hit wonder whose song The Lady in Red climbed to # 1 on the UK charts in 1986 – was perhaps the most prominent name to play in Batumi."

Gee, next year could be the big "25th Anniversary of The Lady in Red" Concert.

Sochi Olympics Watch #10

259513556_georgia0060_copy May not be that much need to buy those Sochi Olympics tickets early. What do you want to bet good seats will still be available?


In 2006, we met several North Ossetian artists on our trip to Kazbegi, just across the border in the Republic of Georgia. In light of today's bloody bombing in Vladikavkaz, I send my sorrow and solidarity to the good people of North Ossetia.

The BBC has what they always call "disturbing video," and it surely is. The accompanying story says 16 are dead. The North Ossetians have had more than their share of grief. Beslan, where the gruesome 2004 school siege killed over 300, is also in North Ossetia.

But the news is grim throughout the northern Caucasus, as this quote from an AP article today shows:

In Dagestan, officials said Thursday that a hotel employee and
another civilian were shot to death by men trying to build a bomb in
their hotel room.

Republican Interior Ministry spokesman
Vyacheslav Gasanov said the shooting took place late Wednesday in the
capital Makhachkala. He said three armed men fled a room in the small
hotel after an explosion and opened fire on a hotel clerk and another
person who confronted them. He says police found several bombs and six
grenades in the room.

In the Dagestani town of Khasavyurt, on the
border with Chechnya, a policeman returning home from work was shot to
death, Gasanov said.

Dagestan is plagued by near-daily shootings
and explosions blamed on criminal gangs and on militants inspired by the
insurgency in neighboring Chechnya.

Before you head out for the 2014 Sochi Games, read some of the great, brave up-close reporting from throughout the region (including a nice description of why you likely wouldn't want to spend much of your vacation in a hotel in Makachkala, capital of Dagestan), in Towers of Stone by Wojciech Jagielski. A couple more suggestions here. More photos from Georgia here.

The Southern Caucusus Part Four: The High Caucasus & the Russian Border


Earlier in this series:
The Southern Caucasus, Part One:
From the Eventual Book
& The
Southern Caucasus Part Two:
Yerevan to Tbilisi
& The Southern Caucasus Part Three: Tbilisi and the Georgia Military Highway

The sides at either end of Kazbegi square comprised nothing much, with a road wandering off in each direction, one the direction from which we’d come, from Tbilisi, the other to Vladikavkaz in Russian Ingushetia. On the fourth side of the square, opposite the hotel, a half dozen desultory kiosks all sold the same things, the petty little consumer goods necessary for life. All had tissues and matches and drinks, but not cold – there wasn’t refrigeration anywhere in the whole lot.

The wares on offer jammed all the window space, inside and out, so that the salespeople sat back invisible behind a little open window in the middle. You wouldn’t call the collective attitude among these six tiny kiosk capitalists sullen. Crestfallen might be the better word.

Kazbegi itself rose on a low hill behind the kiosks. A morning walk among the houses revealed bright flowers on windowsills and suspicious, smoking men in caps seated on low benches with a wary eye and a nod of the head to a stranger. No vehicle traffic. Massive amounts of trash just cast onto the ground in the street, and pigs snuffling through it.

Familytruck A dump truck sized Kamaz truck lumbered by, an unlikely family vehicle which disgorged a scarf-clad old woman and a basket down at the bottom of the hill.

At any particular time, six or eight or ten old Russian-made cars congregated at the center of the makeshift square, their drivers in little knots smoking and waiting for the odd passenger to here or there. Zaza hired a red Lada Niva, strong with a high undercarriage. Just the right vehicle to haul us up to the Holy Trinity church, way up at 2200 meters. We’d drive up and walk down.

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Tomorrow: A Trip to the High Caucasus Mountains


Coming tomorrow here on CS&W: The Southern Caucasus Part Four: The High Caucasus & the Russian Border. Catch up on the series in the meantime with parts 1, 2 & 3, covering Yerevan, Tbilisi and the Georgia Military Highway.

The Southern Caucusus Part Three: Tbilisi and the Georgian Military Highway

Tbilisi, Republic of Georgia

Earlier in this series: The Southern Caucasus, Part One:
From the Eventual Book
& The Southern Caucasus Part Two:
Yerevan to Tbilisi

The Marriott Tbilisi offered an island of luxury, and we took them up on it for a while before a stroll along main street, Rustaveli Boulevard, down toward the massive old Soviet telephone and telegraph building on the far end of the street. From there  a warren of cobbled streets led down to the river Mtkvari.

On the way pensioners sold their family artifacts and whatever else they’d got their hands on, old swords and telephone parts, cutlery and cigarettes, all spread out on mats on the sidewalks, below the leafy canopy.

Never was the sun more brilliant. The air was crisp, the sun hot and the light, somehow, had a northern-latitude clarity.

Impossible to read the Georgian script. The sign outside the first building across the river was doubtless once in Cyrillic, but now it wasn’t in Russian, or in English, but only, proudly, Georgian. Couldn't read the sign, but looking inside, it was a restaurant, and we went inside.

Sometime in Greek antiquity, Jason, in his quest for the Golden Fleece, sailed safely with his Argonauts through the Symplegades, rocks that crushed anything that tried to pass between them, to land in Colchis, the Black Sea coast of present day Georgia. After a series of heroic feats, Jason seized the Golden Fleece.

Duduki In the Argonauts' honor we enjoyed Argo beers as groups of men sat at wooden tables, drinking and enjoying khinkali, sort of the Georgian equivalent of pelmini, Russian meat pastries. Three men in costume wandered out of the back, sat on low chairs and played the traditional Georgian reed instrument called the duduki.

An old man in a bright orange jumpsuit with BP on its breast took our picture from a table across the room, so we took his too. He grinned, got up and left, and came back in a minute with ice cream bars for Mirja and me. He showed us the pictures and said something like, “Souvenir for me, gift for you.”

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Seven Million Dollar Airplane Seat

… but it's a very special seat.

An opposition Labor Party politician named Iosif Shatberashviliin the Republic of Georgia has claimed, via the Turkish newspaper Hurriyet (Liberty), "that Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili had a personal
ejection seat installed on board his jet, but the presidential office
denied the claim."

Mr. Saakashvili travels via Bombardier Challenger.

Fabulous Destinations When Money Doesn’t Matter #9


Proximity to Power is Pricey.

This surely wouldn't appeal to everybody, but it's right up my nerdy alley:  


Global Challenges in a Post-Perestroika World

World Leaders Symposium: Russia & the Black Sea

With Condoleezza Rice, William Perry, Mikhail
Gorbachev, and other special guests

Aboard the Silver Wind • August 30 — September 15, 2010

I'm no cruise fan, but this is no ordinary cruise. It's a symposium that begins in Moscow, travels to Istanbul, and then continues by ship and local transport to Batumi and Tbilisi, Baku, Sochi, Yalta, Sevastopol and Odessa. 

I'd say put me down for that in a flash. Just one tiny problem: The least expensive accommodation is $47,980 for a "Vista Suite," based on double occupancy.


There are photos from Moscow in the Russia Gallery, Istanbul in the Turkey Gallery, Tbilisi in the Georgia Gallery, Baku in the Azerbaijan Gallery and Odessa in the Ukraine Gallery at EarthPhotos.com.