Books: The Atlantic


The book to buy this week is Simon Winchester's Atlantic. It's another in a string of books by Winchester about One Big Thing. This review puts it like this:

"Veteran journalist Simon Winchester has, in recent years, taken to writing what might be called geological blockbusters. His method is to focus on a relatively contained event — the eruption of Krakatoa, say, or the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 — and envelop it in several layers of context, social, scientific, historical, political."

Winchesterbook Winchester has done the Atlantic before. In the fun little book, The Sun Never Sets (reissued in 2004 as Outposts), he visited the odd remnants of the British Empire, including, in the Atlantic, islands like Tristan de Cuhna and St. Helena, the Falklands and Ascension and Bermuda. The new Atlantic is the story of the entire ocean writ large.

(Photo of a sunset somewhere south of the equator in the Atlantic Ocean, en route between St. Helena and Ascension islands. Photos from these two islands in the St. Helena and Ascension galleries at

Atlas of Remote Islands

Atlas Here's a pleasing little book for dreamers and inveterate travelers.

They say members of Washington's political class turn straight to the index of new bestsellers, to see if they're mentioned. The hard core traveler will turn to this atlas's contents straightaway, to see how many of the islands they've visited.

Atlas of Remote Islands is subtitled Fifty Islands I have Never Set Foot On and Never Will, suggesting its author is an armchair traveler. She gives each island a map and a little vignette.

Three samples:

– Howland Island: "She is tall and thin. Next to her, standing lke a shy, diligent girl, is her navigator, Fred Noonan."

– Napuka: "When they finally sight land after fifty days, they find nowhere to drop anchor, and the boats that they land on the island discover nothing to satisfy either hunger or thirst. They name the islands the Disappointment Islands…."

– Amsterdam Island: "No one is allowed to settle here, so the personnal at the research station changes constantly. Some of the men stay for only a few months, but most for a year and a half…. There is no boat. Where would they take it?"

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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Coming Up Next

In a month we'll be off on our summer holiday. This time, after a week at our little cabin on the lake in Finland, we'll sail on the two-hour fast boat the Tallink from Helsinki across the Gulf of Finland to Tallinn, Estonia, reprising our first visit, in 1991, when Estonia had regained its independence for scarcely three months.

For the next week we'll cross the Baltic republics by bus (a really nice bus), car and train, from Estonia to Riga, Latvia to Vilnius, Lithuania to Minsk, Belarus. From Minsk we'll fly (our old buddy) Austrian Airlines to Zurich, enjoy a couple of nights with a nice view of the peaks Eiger, Monch and Jungfrau at the Hotel Eiger in the automobile-free Alpine village of Murren, and then the Glacier Express train from Brig to Chur, ending with a few last days in Munich.

Afterward, we'll have four new Countries Galleries to add to, bringing the total to 98.

It's not as off-the-beaten-path as some trips, granted. But it's built for pleasure. Please join us via these pages, beginning in August.

Travel Lists & Visited Countries Maps

Much of a perfect spring Sunday morning here on the farm was spent posting a chronological list of our travels to the web site (here's how we did). It's another one of those sites, like Douwe Osinga's Visited Countries project, that allows you to compile a map of your travels. Here's our PassportStamp map, followed by our Douwe Osinga map:


Close enough to the same that I'm wondering why I spent multiple hours on a gorgeous morning painstakingly clerking in every trip all the way back to my first drive to Canada in 1980 (Or maybe it was 1979).

But I know why, really. It was in the spirit of competition. See, you'll be ranked among the other site members, stacked up against the competition, sized up and told where you stand. And our results weren't bad:

105 countries visited, ranking 109th overall. Our most-visited countries are the predictable European ones, and many are because they were transit stops on the way elsewhere. The top ten: Germany 11 visits, Finland 9, Austria & France 8, Thailand 7, Italy, Russia, Switzerland & the UK 6, and China 5.

The trouble is the arbitrary rules.

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Would You Sleep in a Truck with 18 Others to Get Photos of Polar Bears?

Okay, not exactly a truck truck. A tundra buggy.

The other day we were on about how spending days in close quarters with the same people – like on a cruise – can get to be just the least bit stifling. Now here are some truly close quarters: Much as I would dearly love the chance to photograph polar bears on Hudson Bay in Churchill, Manitoba, Canada, I'm not so sure about spending several days with 37 others in the Tundra Buggy Lodge

From the web site: "The lodge consists of five large, modular units on huge tires, linked
together like a train with a large-scale interior. The five units
consist of two sleeping modules (complete with shared bathrooms and
shower facilities), a lounge, kitchen and dining unit and a module which
houses supplies and the camp's power station."

Maybe. I'm just not sure.

Here's a couple of screen grabs from a video on YouTube, which you can watch here.

Grab1    Grab2


Cats The consistently interesting site has a story, with photos from camera traps, called Photos: highest diversity of cats in the world discovered in threatened forest of India. If you're in for an adventure vacation, as we've just learned many people are, it ought to get you going. The site has a just-the-facts page on wild cats.

When we eventually get to track the Bengal Tiger I've already got the lodging picked out – we'll stay here.

(Photo from the Animals and Wildlife Gallery at You might also check out the South Africa Gallery. The wild cat in the photo is a cheetah, and the photo was taken on an afternoon game drive at the very nice Mkuze Falls Private Game Reserve in KwaZulu-Natal South Africa.)

Safaris Are a Top Goal for that “Trip of a Lifetime”

Lionsafarihdr We've waxed editorially about the overuse of the marketing words "of a lifetime" a couple of times. Now Alexia Nestora, who runs a blog called Voluntourism Gal, has published a study that gets past the marketing to have a look at what people really decide to do when they take what they describe as their trip of a lifetime.

Key finding: "70% of respondents said they are most interested in visiting natural
and man-made wonders on a once-in-a-lifetime trip such as Machu Picchu,
the Pyramids or Victoria Falls. Beyond that, 53% said they were very
interested in going on safari…."

Also: "52% of respondents organized their lifetime trip independently, 18%
join a tour group, and 16% use a travel agent to organize their trip."

Have a look at her summary, or download the whole report.

And while we're on about research, in a journal called Applied Research in Quality of Life, the study "Vacationers Happier, but Most not Happier After a Holiday" claims something confirmed travelers could have told you in the first place. As the New York times quotes the lead author of the study, “The practical lesson for an individual is that you derive most of your happiness from anticipating the holiday trip.” 

And, I'd add, from reliving the experience with your photos after the trip.

The study author has a tip most of us can probably agree with: “What you can do is try to increase that (your happiness) by taking more trips per year.
If you have a two week holiday you can split it up and have two one
week holidays. You could try to increase the anticipation effect by
talking about it more and maybe discussing it online.”


(Photo is an HDR of a tree climbing lion in the Ishasha Wilderness, Uganda, from See more in the Uganda Gallery and the Animals & Wildlife Gallery at

Trans-Siberian Railroad: The Urals to Irkutsk


No need to leave home. Google Russia has posted (in English) the entire six day, 5752-mile Trans-Siberian railway journey. As the Guardian writes, "You can choose different sounds to accompany it: the rumble of wheels,
sugary Russian pop tunes, or the evocative playing of a balalaika.
Alternatively, you can listen to readings of Russian classics (in
Russian) of Leo Tolstoy's 1,400-page War and Peace or Nikolai Gogol's
Dead Souls.

"Along the way are Russia's
most picturesque vistas: Siberian rivers, the elegantly curving Lake
Baikal, and the hazy Barguzin mountains. There is also a lot of steppe."

Which presents a great opportunity for us to share the story of part of our trip in 2001. Hope you enjoy it.

The kiosk, alongside a tram stop, was just big enough to be a walk-in affair, not big enough for four, let alone our steamy tensome.  The boys in front argued over what beer and candy to order one each of. I motioned for six litre-sized bottles way up high on a shelf, consternation rippling through the mottled impatience behind me.

In a few hours Mirja and I would climb aboard the Trans-Siberian railroad to Ulan Bataar, Mongolia.  We’d be a week en route, so we needed stuff. In a snap, though, I calculated we could get everything else at the train station.  Six litres of water is heavy.

In the United States, today was Labor Day. On the edge of Siberia, autumn held full sway. E-kat's denizens plodded cold and damp in an insistent, heavy shower. A lot of the older folks wore long coats. The rain beset.

Passing the afternoon waiting to climb aboard the train, a cheerful Novosti TV story captioned “Dagestan” showed pictures of exploded railroad track.

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On Hotels: Why People Stay Where They Do

Everybody knows what they like. Everybody has their own approach to where to stay on the road.

Compare this gentle rant against high-end hotel properties with this list of favorite high-end properties. What we have here are two writers headed in different directions.

But I agree with both.

We've all got our stories on the anti-expensive-hotel side. In December, 2006 the hotel just outside the O. R. Tambo International terminal at Johannesburg (which was not then an InterContinental Hotel as it is now) charged us for every last beer, orange drink and tonic water in the minibar. All of them.

That was because we cleared all of them out and placed them in the cabinet beside the minibar so that we could store food we brought back from their restaurant. When it was time to go we reassembled the minibar, but it was one of those pressure-sensitive models which charges you for anything that's lifted from its assigned place.

Of course we were adamant that that wasn't right and would not stand, and it didn't. But we had to send a member of the front desk staff up to confirm all their Pepsis were in place, all momentum came to a screeching halt for fifteen minutes at checkout, and the ill will transformed what had been a pleasant enough stay to an experience I'm still writing about today. Just far, far too mercenary.

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