George Will is starting to follow me around. He wrote Wednesday that
“The Islamic State is a nasty problem that can be remedied if its neighbors, assisted by the United States, decide to do so. Vladimir Putin’s fascist revival is a crisis that tests the West’s capacity to decide.”
He’s right. I wrote here on CS&W on August 13th that
“at bottom ISIS is a band of thugs with an archaic worldview that a willful president and his or her allies, if they had a mind to, could clobber using Colin Powell’s overwhelming force commensurate with ISIS’s brutality. The challenge to Ukraine, on the other hand, is an assault on the world’s organizing principles, with the potential to collaterally undermine both NATO and the Obama administration.”
I had no idea, George, that you were a Common Sense and Whiskey fan, but I welcome you to follow me on Twitter @BMurrayWriter. Would have saved you three weeks on Wednesday’s column. I’ll help you with today’s huge Baltic news in a couple of days.
Happy to help, George. Cheers!
Fun new book from Michael J. Totten. Fun, that is, if your idea of thrills is a drive from Turkey into Iraq for lunch.
Where the West Ends expands on Mr. Totten's Dispatches blog for World Affairs Journal. There are sections roughly grouped as the Middle East, the Balkans, the Caucasus and the Black Sea.
Many authors seem to believe they won't be taken seriously unless their work is laden with ponderous history. When well written, like in some of my suggestions below, that's worthwhile. When it's not, it's the reason tons of books are returned to the shelf half-finished.
In Where the West Ends, Mr. Totten mostly allows a cursory sketch of the past to suffice. I suspect that satisfies armchair travelers. Then he gets on with the travel writing I like best, what it feels like to get up from that chair and actually go to a place, and what it's like, personally, to be there.
Should Mr. Totten's book pique your interest, here are some suggestions for deeper reading:
– Black Garden: Armenia and Azerbaijan Through Peace and War by Thomas de Waal
– Azerbaijan Diary by Thomas Goltz
– Georgia Diary by Thomas Goltz
– Towers of Stone: The Battle of Wills in Chechnya by Wojciech Jagielski
– Bread and Ashes: A Walk Through the Mountains of Georgia by Tony Anderson
– Rebel Land: Unravelling the Riddle of History in a Turkish Town by Christopher de Bellaigue
– In the Rose Garden of the Martyrs: A Memoir of Iran by Christopher de Bellaigue
– Patriot of Persia: Muhammad Mossadegh and a Tragic Anglo-American Coup by Christopher de Bellaigue
– Black Sea by Neil Ascherson
– The Black Sea: A History by Charles King
Along the Georgia Military Highway, Republic of Georgia
And here, in five installments, are excerpts from Common Sense and Whiskey, the book, about our trip through the southern Caucasus:
1: Getting to Armenia
2: Yerevan to Tbilisi
3: Tbilisi and the Georgian Military Highway
4: The High Caucasus & the Russian Border
Order the entire book for $9.99 at Amazon.com, at BN.com, or the Kindle version (just $4.99).
See many more photos of the South Caucasus in the Armenia,
Galleries at EarthPhotos.com.
The notion of "service" isn't quite the same in Russia as it is in other parts of the world. And beyond that, things in general just don't always work all that well. When a group of us visited Moscow in 1986, which was early-Gorbachev, we came home thinking, "THIS is the country we spend billions defending ourselves against!?"
Which is all part of the allure for Ian Frazier, whose book Travels in Siberia recounts a drive from St. Petersburg across the continent. Here's a paragraph that jumped off the page as summing up the whole "Russia" thing. People who have visited will nod knowingly:
"We joined the queue of waiting vehicles beside the train station about two in the afternoon. Asking around, Sergei learned that we would be able to get on a train leaving that night at nine thirty. If I thought I could pleasantly while away the afternoon reading, sketching and jotting in my notebook, I was mistaken. The misery bubbling up everywhere in Chernyshevsk blotted out any idea of calm. Sitting in the van was difficult because of the heat. The widely strewn trash and garbage guaranteed every person an individual corona of flies. Strange guys in warm-up suits loitered the premises at large and hit on any stranger they saw. Even Sergei and Volodya, when they strolled from the van, had to dodge them. The couple of times I ventured among them I was like a crouton in a goldfish pond. The public bathrooms had overflowed some time before, so most people who needed them employed instead whatever out of-the-way or not-so-out-of-the-way corner of Chernyshevsk they could find. The train station itself was devoid of services or information of any sort. Apparently all departure and arrival announcements were relayed solely by word of mouth."
Of course the train never came, and Ian, Sergei and Volodia were left to fend for themselves overnight.
(Photo from a 1990 trip to Leningrad, which reclaimed the name St. Petersburg in 1991. More photos in the Russia Gallery at EarthPhotos.com.)
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.
Down at the far end of Tiananmen Square, opposite the grandiose Forbidden City and Great Hall of the People, both built to larger-than-life scale to intimidate the mere citizen, and past the Mao-soleum, ditto, a warren of alleyways and lanes shuffles off to the east. Built to intimately human scale, this hutong, or old traditional neighborhood, is the subject of a book written with extraordinary warmth and good humor, called The Last Days of Old Beijing: Life in the Vanishing Back Streets of a City Transformed, by Chinese-speaking American school teacher Michael Meyer.
On our most recent visit to Beijing, Olympic trinkets were all the rage. Precisely those Olympics, and the rush to modernize Beijing in time for the games, caused the downfall of many of these old traditional neighborhoods. Meyer rents an apartment (sort of), in a hutong, becomes a teacher at the neighborhood school and tells us the stories of his friends and neighbors with grace and a really good nature. You're pretty sure you'd like Meyer if you knew him.
In this photo, from the China Gallery at EarthPhotos.com, we're just about bowled over by a man carrying a tub of water out of his food shop in the hutong just southeast of Tiananmen Square.
Train T-27, daily service between Beijing and Lhasa, has been in operation for a couple of years now. A recent story called On the Train to Tibet: Railroading the Roof of the World, on Treehugger.com, has a review with lots of pictures.
In 1999, well before you could take the train, we drove to Lhasa from Kathmandu, Nepal. Read that story here.
This photo of the Potala in Lhasa is from EarthPhotos.com. See more Tibet photos in the China gallery on Earthphotos.com.
Photo from EarthPhotos.com’s Oman gallery
In no particular order:
– The government appears to have been watching the neighboring U.A.E. and now means to cherry-pick the best of its development schemes. They’ve obviously moved more slowly, and more cautiously, but now it looks like they’re ready to embrace tourism. For example, a $2.6 billion, 4000 unit residential project on the beach a few minutes from the airport called The Wave is under development (and heavy advertising) and will surely afford blocks of rental properties. It’s being developed in low-slung, anti-garish, Omani style.
– The Muttrah Souk near Muscat is smaller than souks and markets we’ve visited in Marrakech, Cairo and Calcutta. It is possible not to get lost in the Muttrah Souk. Nonetheless, it’s an absorbing couple of hours.
– Dubai is Muscat’s big brother, and connection to the rest of the world. I don’t know how many people proudly noted that it’s only four hours (some said five) drive up the highway.
– Everybody is fascinated with water.