Laurence Mitchell in the Republic of Georgia: Guest Post

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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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Bound for Irkutsk

Last week we mentioned that author/photographer/friend Laurence Mitchell is traveling the former Soviet Union, with stops so far in Estonia, Moscow, Kazan, Tomsk and Ekaterinberg. Reached by email as he set off for Irkutsk and Lake Baikal, Laurence agreed to share his adventures so far. Read his story after the jump. Thanks, Laurence!

Irkutsk

Photo: Road sign, "Irkutsk 63" from the Russia Gallery at EarthPhotos.com.

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The Athens of South America

Enjoy this guest post from our friend Rick Lewis, a frequent visitor to Latin America:

The Athens of South America

The hotel doorman’s instructions were very specific.  “It’s completely safe to walk from here to the bus terminal.  Just don’t ask directions from anyone but uniformed police and soldiers.  And remember that no one has the authority to see your passport or demand money.  But be sure to carry your passport.”

It’s everyone’s best effort to comfort visitors whose only impression of their capital is its reputation as one of the most violent cities in the world.  It still is—and there are police and soldiers everywhere—but as in New York or Jakarta, it’s not that hard to stay out of trouble either.   It’s much safer than it was.

Bogata1

From its 16th century buildings to soaring modern skyscrapers, all embraced by the sweeping Andes, the sprawling city of Bogotá is the living vision of the Spanish conquest.  What began as a settlement called Santa Fé de Bacatá in 1538 is home to more than seven million people, all apparently accustomed to the shortage of oxygen at 8600 feet.   It’s the third highest major city in the world, and not just from chewing coca leaves.    Viewed from the sanctuary of Monserrate at 10,000 feet (above), the metropolis stretches forever under passing showers.

Of the many world capitals upon which I’ve bestowed a hasty, superficial opinion, Bogotá stands out for a whole range of reasons.  The weather is the first unavoidable impression, especially when arriving from Miami.  It’s cool all year, with average highs in the upper 60s and lows in the 40s, but with some variations and occasional spectacular hailstorms in the fall.  Then there’s that combination of a modern, bustling cosmopolitan business center and the city’s obvious colonial heritage.  The Primary Cathedral of Bogotá, built in the early 1800s, anchors the east side of the central Plaza de Bolívar, a wide public space surrounded by the seat of the national Congress, the Palace of Justice, and the headquarters of the mayor.  Like public squares everywhere, it is alive with pigeons.    An inscription over the Palace of Justice reads, “Colombians:  Arms have given us independence.  Laws will give us liberty.”
There are abundant must-see destinations in Bogotá.  One is the stunning Museum of Gold with the largest collection of pre-Hispanic gold objects in the world.  The building itself is as lovely as its gleaming vessels, breastplates and masks.

Bogata2

There’s the whole colonial district of La Candelaria, or any of the numerous colleges and universities that inspired the “Athens” nickname.   But a really striking characteristic of this town, among all the bangles and trappings of history, is—of all things—transportation. 

It starts with the taxi ride from El Dorado airport, racing across the entire city at reasonable prices through world-class traffic.  (Most taxis in Colombia, by the way, are fueled by natural gas.)  Mine was stopped once downtown so that President Uribe’s motorcade could pass—five green SUVs and an ambulance, for that special kind of lead poisoning that so often afflicts Latin heads of state.  And then there is the centerpiece of the city’s mass transit: the TransMilenio.  It is an amazing system of well over a thousand sleek, double-length articulated red buses that speed down dedicated lanes in the middle of seven major routes, carrying about 1.6 million passengers a day.  The stations are like subway platforms, and the doors slide open like subway doors to reveal comfortable and spacious interiors.  A flat fare of about 75 cents takes you anywhere.  With their restricted lanes, the buses are unaffected by traffic.

The tourist’s inevitable reaction is, “Why aren’t WE doing this?!”  The TransMilenio uses efficient diesel engines, and by replacing 7000 conventional buses, claims to have reduced emissions by 59% since the system’s debut in 2001.  Exhaust fumes are still noticeable in Bogotá, because there are still plenty of vehicles, and the problem is amplified by the altitude for reasons of physics that are beyond my grasp.

I took the big red bus one day to its western terminus, and then grabbed a small intercity bus for the pleasant hour-long trip to the historic city of Zipaquirá (another $1.25 or so).  These colorful vehicles are always an experience in themselves.  In addition to the driver and sometimes a few of his friends, each has a kind of “shouter” who drops from the moving bus at every place where a passenger might be found, urging everyone to jump on board, perhaps whether they want to or not.  He kept recruiting all the way to Zipaquirá, a venerable city that tourism has swelled to 110,000 inhabitants. There, in the aromatic breeze among towering eucalyptus trees, is the entrance to the Cathedral of Salt.  Fourteen stations of the cross and numerous chapels are bored into a mountain of salt for the length of two football fields, and it takes at least two hours to wander through its passages on a guided tour.

To emerge blinking into the daylight and silence and eucalyptus-perfumed air, with the bucolic view of the town’s tile roofs and drifting smoke from meat-roasting ovens below, is a reminder that most of Colombia—the parts I have seen—is a near-paradise of mountains, rivers, forests, seashores and quaint villages.  Not to mention charming and friendly people who are passionate about their culture and their country.  Those who avoid it because of a few thousand murders and kidnappings are missing something truly special.

Rick Lewis
July 12, 2009

Rick Lewis is CEO of Friends of WLRN in Miami, Florida

(Photography courtesy of the author.)

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Top Un-Disappointing Destinations – A Guest Post

Please enjoy this guest post, graciously offered by
Edinburgh-based professional travel writer and photographer Andy Hayes, and check out his site, Sharing Experiences.

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Back in April, Bill covered the disappointing list of top ten disappointing travel destinations. I thought we'd spruce things up a bit with a top list of Un-Disappointing Destinations. I suppose you could call it "a list of my favourites", but that would sound a bit boring wouldn't it?

  1. Melbourne, Australia – Melbourne is such a fantastic spot, I'd ideally like to live there someday. Sunny sandy beaches, great food., and really friendly locals make it a top un-disappointment. To me, it's a cosmopolitan culture with the perect blend of European and Asian influence.
  2. Nelson, New Zealand – If I told you that I went to the self-proclaimed "Sunny Nelson" and it rained every minute of it, you'd probably think I'm crazy for including it here. Well, I can't deny the crazy part, but even in the rain and low dense clouds, Nelson was a special place for me. So many flowers and green space and everyone so cheerful (perhaps it was this elusive sun they kept talking about that did it).
  3. Siem Reap & Angkor Wat, Cambodia – I was looking forward to this part of the world only to see the massive temples of Ankgor Wat. Words don't describe how huge these things are – you drive for miles in a car INSIDE the moat of the city. And we thought the moat was a river. Crazy. And Siem Reap is a little hidden party paradise, with tons of shopping and good food.


    Temple Bayon in the Angkor Wat Complex

  4. Brno, Czech Republic – Everyone's been to Prague, and when you go, you'll think they're all still there. You can still find some of the true city gems, but it's just more difficult. Another option is to get out – and my favourite is Brno. Very un-disappointing, there is a large university there so you'll find plenty of folk to converse with in English. And the breweries are just as superfluous in number and quality as you find in Prague.
  5. Brussels, Belgium – I'm not sure why but I seem to be defending the Belgian Capital everywhere I go. I'm not being paid for it, seriously – I just think it's a tremendous city that is often overlooked. I will admit you do have to dig a bit deep to understand and appreciate the Belgian charms, but why else go on holiday but to experience something difference?
  6. Lille, France – I call this Paris's little sister that nobody knows about. In the north of the country close to the Belgian border, Lille has world-class museums, medieval streets, and several parks for getting a bit of fresh air. What more could one want?


    Lille's Railway Station

  7. Livermore Valley, California – If you were a reader of my blog, you'd know about this little secret just an hour east of San Francisco. All the typical outdoorsy activities are available (hiking, biking, etc.) but in my opinion this is where you should head if you want some of the best wine in California.
  8. The Florida Keys, USA – You don't have to love drag queens and ostentatious pub crawls to enjoy the keys. (Although if you do like that, even better.) The nice thing about the keys is there are a number of stops along the way down to the end of the road – also known as Key West – and each has its own distinct personality. So you can find a spot to chill out and veg, or you can hit the party places, it's up to you.
  9. Montreal, Canada – The French theme continues in North America, and if you can stomach the chilly air Montreal is a gastronomic and cosmo chic delight year-round. It has evolved into this French subculture with Canadian influences that is so unique you just have to see it.


Andy Hayes is a professional travel writer and photographer based in Edinburgh, Scotland, where they spell whisky without an 'e'. To be honest, he has yet to actually find anywhere truly disappointing. To learn more about his worldwide adventures, visit his inspirational travel blog, Sharing Experiences.

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Election Day in Iran

Please enjoy this guest post on election day in Iran, from author and photographer Lawrence Mitchell:

101_3393 Back in November, on the eve of the US elections, I reported here from Iran. Contrary to all expectations, I was struck by how similar Iran was to the US in some (albeit subtle) ways, with notions of national pride, personal ambition, strong morality, social courtesy – even occasional mass hysteria – all to the fore. Even the way that politics worked seemed to have some parallels with the machinations in ‘The Great Satan’. The gist of my posting back then was that Iranians, too, were thirsty for change. Well, now is their chance. On Friday, June 12, Iran-watchers around the world will be curious to know the outcome of what has been an extraordinary build up to that country’s presidential elections.

The candidates have been whittled – if that is the right word – down to four contenders: Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the current conservative incumbent; Mir-Hossein Mousavi, a reformist politician and architect; Mehdi Karoubi, another moderate reformist with a rural base of support, and Mohsen Rezai, an arch-conservative who was allegedly involved in bombing a Jewish cultural centre in Buenos Aires in 1994. Of the four contenders, the only really viable candidates are Ahmadinejad – naturally – and Mousavi, who previously served as Iran’s last Prime Minister between 1981 and 1989 before constitutional changes removed the post.

Mousavi, widely praised for his economic skills, is keen to end Iran’s isolationism and does not mind saying so. In a recent feisty television debate watched by over 40 million, he successfully sparred with Ahmadinejad and, in addition to criticising his abysmal economic record, accused him of disgracing Iranians in the eyes of the world by going to Geneva to make his anti-Israel tirade at an anti-racism convention.

101_3722 To win elections in Iran you need to woo the country’s enormous working class. Ahmadinejad has traditionally been very popular with this sector but Mousavi has recently also found favour with this demographic thanks to Ahmadinjad’s perceived bad handling of economy and his dismantling of civil liberties. Mousavi’s presidential bid, initially welcomed by intellectuals, trade unions and grass roots activists, now looks as if it is managing to widen its appeal. Back in May, Ahmadinejad led polls by a considerable margin but, now that conservatives and reformers alike seem to be rallying behind Mousavi, the gap has closed quite markedly.  Last week, Mousavi even received a spectacular ovation at a rally at the super-conservative holy city of Qom, where his supporters sported green.

Of course, presidential success does not necessarily imply meaningful change. In Iran, the president is outranked by Supreme Leader, Ali Khameini, and has no legal authority over the police or army. Mohammad Khatami, the former reformist president between 1997—2005, found this out to his cost as his attempts to reform were repeatedly stymied by religious hardliners. So, will it be a green revolution for Iran? Watch this space.

Laurence Mitchell 2009

(Photos courtesy of Laurence Mitchell. See more of Laurence's photography at LaurenceMitchell.com. Laurence Mitchell is author of the Bradt Travel Guides to Serbia and Kyrgyzstan. His upcoming book is Go Slow Norfolk & Suffolk.)