Dawn came at the Door to Hell in the Karakum Desert and I could hear the guides moving about making the cooking fire so I climbed out of my tent to watch the sunrise and to sit beside the fire, it was really, really cold. Tea was made, toast too, though not much conversation was attempted, sore heads all round after the previous night’s vodka. Eventually camp was struck and I set off with the Argentinean’s guide, Vladimir, in the Argentinean’s car, bigger than Mr Ishan’s, a Land Rover in fact. I didn’t see them leave but assumed they went back to the border with the brothers Ishan. Incongruously Vlad’ started playing music from what is described as the New Romanticism period so we bounced out of the desert to the tunes of Duran Duran, Spandau Ballet, Flock of Seagulls, that sort of thing, it was quite a nostalgic trip back to the 80s. The Kiwi couple was in another car in the convoy and we sped, once again flying over the ruts and potholes, on through the desert in the direction of Ashgabat, the capital of Turkmenistan. There was a small village on the edge of the desert where we stopped for water and amazingly a replacement brake light bulb for the Land Rover. The drivers also took the opportunity to wipe the dust off the cars and clean the windows in preparation for the capital where I can only assume dirty cars are not approved of.

I had done some research on Turkmenistan before the trip and determined from various guides and blogs that Ashgabat resembled a cross between 1930s Germany and 2017 North Korea and I wasn’t too far off the mark. On leaving the desert we were stopped at a police roadblock about every ten miles where we were photographed and on occasion had to produce passports and papers. On arriving in the capital I was advised to only take photos when the Vladimir said I might, on one occasion he quickly lowered my arm as I was about too click. Photographing policemen can land you in jail and there were frequently four police at each intersection. Ashgabat has been described as the white marble city of the world. This is an understatement; there were enormous white marble faced buildings everywhere I looked. The airport roof was a vast white marble silhouette of a bird; actually there were three vast birds, one for each terminal, but no planes. Vladimir pointed out the library, ten stories high, filled he said, with books in Turkmen. I couldn’t help but raise an eyebrow and wonder how many of the people riding donkey carts out in the countryside appreciated a ten story, white marble faced library.

I was abandoned at my hotel that proudly proclaimed ‘Hotel of Ministry of Internal Affairs of Turkmenistan’ on a plaque outside. Vladimir said he would return at 9.00am the following day, told me not to take photos and pointing to the plaque said jokingly that I would be well protected. After the usual mime pantomime with the rather surly receptionist I determined that there was no wifi but if I strolled about a mile down the street to the Grand Turkmen Hotel I may be allowed to use theirs. I walked down the street in Ashgabat gazing about in typical newcomer fashion but nobody would look me in the eye, no hello mister, no smiles, it was all a bit unnerving. But I did find the five star hotel, helped myself to the wifi password from the reception desk because nobody wanted to talk to me and logged on briefly. Texts to family back home to assure them I was safe and well, I tried the usual Social Media sites but they were all blocked.

There was an element of the Handmaid’s Tale that I noticed, a large percentage of the women were all clad in a sort of red uniform tunic type of garment. Vladimir said they were students but they were everywhere, going in and out of the buildings and now I come to think of it he never showed me a university. I couldn’t get that dreadful song out of my mind, a Lady in Red earworm, ghastly. Ashgabat has been created to show the world and presumably the populous how great Turkmenistan is and how well developed it is. There seemed to be only one TV station that was showing a large conference center with rows and rows of gentlemen with long beards and the president as it were, presiding. Everyone was watching it. The event was called the  Maslahat and is held as a demonstration of the democratic process in action. It is not.  It turned out that what I thought was a conference center was in fact a massive yurt, set in the desert outside the city and holding up to two thousand people. Quite a yurt! The basis for the system of government seems to be based on the cult personality of the president who displays portraits of himself all over the city and names schools and streets with the names of his relatives. There is only one political party, dissent is not tolerated and freedom of speech is non-existent.

Ashgabat is a very strange place.

More reading here:


Kettle’s on for tea at dawn.


The bakery in a desert village.


The airport.


White marble with President.


White marble.


A bit of color and white marble.


A lady in red.


Ladies in red.


Wedding chapel.


The big yurt in the desert. Putin had just visited apparently. Those mountains are in Iran.


Just some of the papers I had to carry.


Turkmenistan Road Trip

A whirlwind visit to Turkmenistan because that is all that my visa permitted. My Letter of Invitation arrived in my email inbox and as instructed I was at the border at 9.00am almost convinced that something would go wrong and I would have to return to Khiva. As I arrived a large bus unloaded a group of tourists and I joined the line behind all of them feeling that already things were going awry. Sure enough the process took an inordinately long time, as most of the tourists had not filled in their forms correctly. Eventually my turn came and I ate humble pie, my forms were wrong too. Endless passport stamping and photos taken and I went out only to find that the group ahead of me was stopped for “rest room breaks.” I got ahead arriving at the Turkmenistan side watched with some incredulity as the Turkmen bureaucracy lumbered into life. No less than four hand written forms were generated on the spot and I was instructed to carry them to the payment station across the room were more forms were generated and eventually I had a visa in my passport. Walking nervously toward the customs officials, all eight of them, a young man asked me if I knew anything about computers! Say what? There I was at the Turkmenistan border fixing Customs and Immigration computers, funny old world. The reward for my efforts was a very cursory glance at my bags and I was out and away to find Mr Ishan waiting for me and off we went.

The first stop, in Turkmenistan, was outside a city called Koneurgench and consisted of three interesting looking sites but I had no idea what I was looking at. Mr Ishan, though friendly enough, couldn’t tell me, I had no cell phone reception, and there was no sign of a shop selling guidebooks or even trinkets and postcards. He indicated that we would be there for three hours at which point I protested slightly in best mime. He handed me his phone and there was a heavily accented English accent asking me what was the matter. The situation got cleared up and I negotiated just a half hour at the Tyurabek Hanum, Solton Tekesh and the Gutlug Timur Minaret historical site. Walking around trying to work out what I was seeing I stopped under a tree and noticed a group of women doing ‘something,’ which consisted of putting their hands near the roots of the tree and then walking around it touching all the branches within reach. Odd I thought, are they Animists here. Then again in the middle of a very large adjacent field there was a woman obviously praying. Praying is fine but I have never seen it performed in the middle of a field. Have I led a sheltered life? I now know that the Gutlug Timur Minaret was, in 1330, the tallest building in the world and is all that is left of the ancient city of Gurganj. It was sacked by both Genghis Khan and Tamerlane after which the inhabitants, any that remained alive, moved away and it was abandoned.

Such was my introduction to Turkmenistan.

Mr Ishan and I sped off down the rather rough road and after a while he seemed to be getting tired and making mistakes which caused some anxiety. He failed to obey the speed limit at least twice and was pulled aside by the police immediately. The police, ha, the police in Turkmenistan, they are everywhere, there is a joke there “see a tree see a policeman, see two trees see two policemen.” If you are caught taking a photo of one you are liable to end up in jail. Mr Ishan avoided any serious trouble by simply bribing the officers to let us go on our way, $10 in local money seemed to do the trick. He was on his phone continuously, which I found mystifying until we came to the large city of Dashoguz, the second largest in the country, where things became clearer. We stopped at a supermarket for supplies and met up with his brother who had brought two tourists from the border outside Khiva, two New Zealanders, we chatted and bought supplies as instructed. Chocolate, biscuits, wine, vodka, you know, all the major food groups and roared away in convoy.


A couple more hours through cotton fields and what I took to be rice but Mr Ishan wasn’t too forthcoming until another stop for melons. The brother announced that this was the last stop before the desert so the lady Kiwi went to the loo, and returning looked grossed out demanding antiseptic wipes! Sure enough we were immediately in the desert, the Karakum, there were dunes, there were these odd looking square things beside the road to prevent the sand inundating the pavement, and there were goats, sheep and camels, lots of camels. Lots of photo opportunities except that the road was terrible, not just the occasional pothole, the whole road was a pothole which made taking photos impossible. To avoid the usual pothole experience of slowly sinking a wheel into the hole and then coming up the other side, we went faster, much faster, about 80-85 MPH and virtually flew over the pot holes swerving to avoid the deeper ruts and speeding along on the wrong side of the road. The noise was incredible as Mr Ishan battled with the wheel and I tried to be nonchalant and read a book. That didn’t last long! There is suitable metaphor somewhere that I can’t come up with, is it about peas or a can? He did slow down occasionally so I could take a photo of camels but that meant we fell behind the brother so we had to go even faster to catch up. It was all a rather cacophonous, roaring blur which went on and on for over a hundred miles. But we had a goal and needed to get there, so fast we went; I did see some Europeans driving along and enjoying the usual pothole experience at about 25 MPH. Oh, and did I mention the dust cloud we kicked up?

Finally our little convoy slowed and we turned off the road onto a desert track, engaged 4-wheel drive and ground out into the desert proper. After a few miles there was our destination, The Darvasa Gas Crater more popularly known as ‘The Door to Hell.’ Back in 1971 The Russians were drilling for natural gas in the Karakum and found a vast reserve of methane gas, which started leaking, and killing the local wildlife. It was decided that the remedy was to be a process called ‘flaring,’ basically just set fire to it until the leak stopped. It never has. The result is this enormous crater in the wastes of the desert that is on fire, flames, heat and a curious popping and crackling sound. It is really quite eerie. The brothers Ishan went off to pitch our camp leaving the three of us to gape and exclaim, take photos, pose as if warming our hands, etc etc. As darkness fell we were picked up, taken to camp, introduced to our tents, fed and watered and taken back to the crater. The nighttime crater experience was even more dramatic as the flames light up the desert night and the noises seemed louder. Taking photos was difficult because of the size and of course the darkness, I wasn’t very successful. Then the same group of tourists I had met at the border crossing surrounded us and it just wasn’t the same anymore. Our isolation was broken. There is only so much looking you can do at a gas flaming crater in the middle of the desert so we went back to our camp where the vodka was broken out. It had got quite cold; I was wearing my coat and gloves so the vodka was quite warming. However, these guys, the brothers Ishan and another guide who showed up with a group of Argentineans, were built like linebackers (rugby second row forwards) who seemed determined to make a night of it. No way was I going to keep up with three Russian-speaking giants so I went to bed and fell asleep to the sounds of the Door to Hell.


The ladies and the magic tree which apparently has healing properties.


Prayers in a field.


Gutlug Timur Minaret. The tallest building in the world in 1330. Spared by Genghis Khan and Tamerlane who both were impressed with its size.

desert stall

A very small stall in the desert.


This is a blurry photo of the strange square things that were beside the road throughout the desert to stop sand encroachment. They seem to made of upright twigs. Anyone know?


Camel and camel fodder truck for the winter.


More camels.


The Door to Hell, with New Zealanders.


Another view.


The crater at night.

The Road to Moynaq.

Sometimes things don’t work out quite as planned but then again occasionally the gods are on my side and serendipity takes over. I was having breakfast chatting with the BnB owner in Khiva about border crossings into Turkmenistan. He mentioned that the crossing from Nukus, about four hours North, was the easiest and said he would go and investigate how much it would cost for me to get there. Meanwhile a German man joined the table and as usual the questions began with ‘Where are you from’ and ‘Where are you going.” He replied Nukus but was a little sad because his wife, Julia, was sick and didn’t want to go on to Muynak. Within minutes I had booked a hotel for one night pre border crossing, arranged a car for the three of us to Nukus to drop off Julia at the hotel before Engin and I set off for Muynak. What is this Muynak I hear you ask, actually you may know, but I will come to that.

Another two days in Khiva and early on Saturday morning the taxi came to pick us up and we drove out through the city wall’s big South Gate and headed through the oasis to Urgench before turning North. We crossed over the big river that provides the irrigation for this fertile spot, the Amu Darya, through cotton fields, maize and other cash crops (melons) until the green gave way to the browns of the Karakum Desert. Not the greatest roads but here and there were long, smooth and straight sections being built by, yes; you guessed it, the Chinese. An uneventful journey except for the peculiar ritual of being required to get out of the car outside the gas stations and wait with all the other car passengers before being picked up when the refill was completed. Arriving in Nukus we determined that there were two hotels in town with exactly the same name and of course we went to the wrong one first. Then on arriving at the correct one we found that Engin and Julia were booked into a yurt that poorly, sick Julia was not wild about. We sorted out a room for her from the compassionate reception desk person and leaving Julia to her restful day Engin and I got back in the car.

Another uneventful drive of about three hours that added to the three hour journey from Khiva to Nukus made for something of endurance, but it’s the price you have to pay. The landscape was flat, scrub covered and not green at all for the last fifty miles before Muynak but we finally arrived and there they were just as predicted. Peering over what used to be the cliffs of the Aral Sea we could see the marooned fishing fleet of Muynak below left high and dry years ago as the Sea waters receded. It was one of the saddest things I have ever seen. Back in the 1960s when Uzbekistan was a part of the Soviet Union some genius in the Politburo decided that it would help the country’s economy if the rivers, the Amu Darya and Syr Darya, flowing into the Aral Sea were diverted to enable cotton, rice and melon growing in the Karakum Desert. Once one of the world’s four largest lakes it is now only 10% of its former size. The remaining body of water is highly saline and the fish can no longer live in it. Moynaq was a thriving fishing town but when the water receded the fishing industry died and the population mostly left for other parts of Uzbekistan. The Sea shore is now one hundred miles away from Moynaq. Today it almost resembles a ghost town and the residents suffer from diseases caused by the frequent toxic dust storms. The Aral Sea disaster has become known as one of the major man made ecological disasters of all time. Of course the Soviet scientists and academics warned their Government of the likely outcome of their decision but were publicly ridiculed and ignored. Hmm, that sounds rather familiar.

Further reading here if you are interested:


A valuable load. Firewood.


Migrating birds heading south. Can anyone identify them?


The saddest thing…




Just think, this was someone’s livelihood.




The cliffs of the Aral sea where the waves will crash no more due to Government stupidity.


Engin walking about.


The Aral Sea that was.


The Aral Sea that is.


Behind me is the extent of the disaster stretching to the horizon and beyond.


Main street Moynaq.IMG_1216

The memorial to a lost Sea.

Return to Khiva

I mentioned David from Stantours in my last post and he suggested that he could provide the necessary LOIs (Letters of Introduction) allowing me to visit Turkmenistan, albeit briefly. The difficulties of visiting Turkmenistan are well known so I leapt at the chance knowing full well that I could be disappointed at the conclusion of the application process. He told me where to be and when and the border crossing just happened to be quite close to one of my favorite little cities in the world, Khiva, in Uzbekistan. After somewhat reluctantly leaving Bishkek I was excited to abandon the cold for the oasis of Khorzem set between the vast deserts of Karukem and Kyzylkum and return to Khiva. What an unexpected treat.

The first thing that greeted me was when my taxi driver talked about Hiva, as that is how it is pronounced, not Khiva at all. It is also known as Ichon-Qala, Itchan Kala and also Xiva, take your pick. I tried to book the BnB online where I stayed previously but all indications were that it was sold out this being high season in Khiva, October and November are high season hereabouts. Undaunted I phoned Jaloladdin, the manager, and tried to persuade him that I was suitable guest but he wouldn’t budge until I said I was disappointed not seeing his children now that they were growing up. That did it, I clinched a room at the best little BnB in Khiva. Now I sit in probably the best room (#6) that has a little balcony, table and chair allowing me to sit in the late afternoon sun as I write this.

I wrote a blog post about Khiva three years ago so not only will I have to come up with a new title but also mention a few things not discussed back then. I’ll start with melons, yes, melons. Amongst the melon cognoscenti Uzbek melons are the holy grail, there is a melon festival every year here in Khiva, there are special melon houses built to keep the melons fresh during the winter months known as qovunxona, there are endless melon stalls beside the road and families have special melon carving rituals. It is all very melon centric. The best Uzbek melons are grown here in the Khorzem oasis, so the melons here are the crème de la crème and I enjoy slices at every breakfast. I did just a little melon research and there is an Uzbek melon farm just outside Modesto, California, who knew?

Within the walls of Khiva, and magnificent walls they are, people live, trade, and seem to really enjoy life. On the main street there is a musical instrument museum outside of which is a seller of ethnic music CDs and they are played throughout the day, quite loudly. It is such a treat to see the local ladies, and gentlemen, making their way through the town to the big market just outside the walls, stop, get their rhythm down and start dancing together. This is not put on for tourists, who stop and gape, but to my mind just an honest manifestation of joie de vivre. Today I approached the dancing crossroads and some ladies were gyrating in the street and invited me to join in. There I was swaying coyly and there were tourists taking my photo. Oh dear. Look out for me on Instagram going viral! It was all in good humor, everybody laughed but, no hugs, mustn’t touch Muslim women. That’s how it is, take it or leave it.

The money has changed; in fact it changed within the last few weeks. Previously there was the official rate and the black market rate. One arrived at the border crossing and was basically forced to change money at the official rate to buy food or find a taxi. On arriving at a hotel the owner invariably suggested that he could get a better rate under that tree over there and that is what everyone did. The currency denominations were slightly ludicrous and for $100 one ended up with an enormous pile of Som, so big that a large bag was required to carry them around, as there were no large denominations. Now though it has all changed, the black market rate that was is now the official rate and larger denomination bills have been introduced. Even so, the wad of Som received in exchange for a hundred dollars is still quite impressive. I don’t think the repercussions of this major financial overhaul have really taken effect yet; I can buy a plate of Plov, the national dish (rice and veg), for 75 cents (50P), same for a pot of tea, a souvenir fridge magnet or a bread stamp.

Bread stamp? I was asked to say more about Central Asian bread after a photo in the Kyrgyzstan post. Firstly the loaves are called non and if you didn’t see the photo look a bit like a bagel without the hole in the middle. The baker starts with a circular piece of dough and then pounds it with a bread stamp or chekich, a sort of carved handle with metal pins set into it, producing various designs in the bread depending on the layout of the pins. Ckekichs are widely available as souvenirs in various qualities, I bought one in the market for $1.00 but you can pay up to $5.00 at the souvenir stands, or buy one on Etsy apparently, Ha. The fashioned bread is then placed into a clay, wood fired tandyr that is similar to a tandoori oven. The dough is stuck to the side of the tandyr, water is thrown on it and ten minutes later there is your finished non. It is served with breakfast, lunch, dinner and even with tea and like the melons, delicious.

Hope this hasn’t been too wordy but I very much doubt I will be able to upload any photos from here as the Internet is very slow. In Bishkek each photo uploaded in about five seconds, as I had a router in my room, ecstasy, but here, not so much. I’ll be back with tales of The Door to Hell, Ashgabat and Merv. Until then, au revoir.

PS. Photos finally uploaded from Bukhara.


Market stall holders.


Sweets, candy and biscuits in the market.


The statue of Al-Khorezmiy who invented algebra, the decimal point and algorithms.


View from BnB rooftop.


Off to the market….


Kalta Minor minaret.


Wedding party procession moving through the town.


Bread oven.


Bread in oven.


The colors were dazzling.


Melons, melons, melons.


Such glamour.

A week in Kyrgyzstan.

A week in Kyrgyzstan and it really isn’t enough time but winter is coming, in fact last night it snowed and there is much snow on the mountains visible in the south from my room. I took the weekend to recover from the travel day and set about investigating how to see lake Issyk Kul. The lake is probably the biggest tourist draw in all of Kyrgyzstan and is the second largest Alpine lake in the world after lake Titicaca at around 5,000 feet. Hiking and winter sports are popular and maybe someone will remember the climbers from Seattle I met last time I was here. As an aside: one of the reasons to come to Bishkek, the capital, is to obtain visas for other countries in Central Asia and I have been doing that. With more time I would have taken a marshrutka, a mini bus that plies a particular route and is ubiquitous in these parts, but as time was tight and with embassy visits scheduled I found a car with driver. This sounds a bit Rajish and extravagant but it really is not, I’ve done it in other countries and it is a good way to get around if one’s route is not served any other way.

Off and away then into the Tian Shan mountains, which translated means Mountains of Heaven, on the main highway which parallels the Kazak border for a considerable distance. Leaving the border the road climbs and climbs but it is an easy drive because the Chinese have replaced the old road to facilitate their trade routes, naturally, and it is a smooth dual carriageway all the way to the lake. A spur turns off just before the lake taking the trucks south to Naryn and the Chinese border. Our road deteriorated somewhat as we set off to circle the lake, much bouncing and swerving to avoid the worst of the potholes. The views to our right were absolutely fabulous, peaks and ranges as far as we could see, all snow capped and the blue lake waters on our left. Very picturesque it was. There have been attempts to restore or at least preserve Kyrg culture and so the first night was spent at a yurt camp on the lakeshore. Did I say picturesque? The people of Kyrgyzstan are very proud of their nomadic past and yurts are an important feature of the nomadic way of life. The national flag is an image of the top vent of a yurt, yes really, have a look.

We were advised that some young people from the local youth cultural center were going to demonstrate some of the traditional nomadic skills. We were treated to eagle hunting; I had an eagle, hooded, standing on my arm. There were two birds that turned up in a rather beaten up old car, one in the trunk (boot) and one on the passenger seat. These two big birds of prey glided and swooped around and over the low foothills; it was a privilege to witness it. They caught lures dragged around by the youths from the cultural center, some phony, some not (!) and were rewarded for each capture. Then it was the turn of the archers who demonstrated their warrior skills. I was persuaded to try and shall we say, my warrior days are numbered.

On around the lake to the major town in the Oblast (county) called Karakol. Founded in Russian times it features hotels, restaurants, bars and clubs, all the trappings of a winter sports center. There was a fine little museum that featured some relics from earlier times including pieces from the Scythians, a nomadic tribe that has caught my interest. They were reputedly from Mongolia and again were nomadic, had no written language and all they left to us are burial mounds, some of which I spotted outside Karakol. The Russians are frantically excavating their remaining Scythian burial mounds because climate change is melting the permafrost and any existing artifacts are being destroyed. Interestingly the British Museum is currently hosting a massive Scythian exhibition in London at the moment.

Another trip completed after the long drive back to Bishkek. All embassy visits completed and if you are interested I can really recommend David at Stantours. He will issue LOIs, Letters of Introduction, for you that makes the whole visa application process for countries like Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan easier and much less stressful. Give him a call at his office in Almaty.


Typical view in Issyk Kul region.


Lakeshore Issyk Kul.


Yurt camp.


Just another hazard on the road.


Yours truly, with eagle.


Young man and his eagle.



Small warrior.


Small warrior with bird.


Eagle in flight, if you look closely.


Was the eagle posing for photos?


Eagle in car, no seat belt!


Scythian burial mounds?


Waiting for the bus.


The bread is very interesting in these parts.


This is the flag.

Kazakhstan to Kyrgyzstan

Here I am racing along on the main road from Almaty to Bishkek (Kazakhstan to Kyrgyzstan) in a taxi believe it or not. My good wife, Julia, bless her, had a minor fit a couple of years ago when I walked across the border into Tajikistan, quite justified actually. She made me promise not to walk across any more borders so I haven’t, but did sneak one from Israel to Jordan. I could have taken a mini bus, or marshrutka, for this trip but it would involve walking about a mile across no mans land and I would break my promise. I found a company called Kiwitaxi who for a very reasonable rate will take you from A to B, door to door, actually less than a taxi from Marin to the airport, or Winchester to Heathrow, for this ride. So I’ll live blog as I go.

I’m on the steppe which is kind of romantic though a bit featureless and way in the distance on my left, to the south, are the Lli Alatau mountains (part of the northern Tian Shan range) and they have snow on them. I had always thought of the steppe as covered in swishing long green grass, almost right, grass yes, but it has been over a hundred (38C) degrees here every day for five months so its rather brown or “golden’ like California before the rains start. (Quick aside: Here I am miles out in the Kazakh steppe and my phone rings! It’s Julia from California! She must be psychic.) We just stopped so that Mucheed, driver, can imbibe a shot of the national drink, fermented mare’s milk (Kumis) with bits in, no thanks, I’ll stick with the pink stuff!

The steppe is actually rather fabulous, it’s so vast and I can see it stretching away into the haze in the distance with the occasional village far, far away. Farming seems to be what they do here; there are sheep, the occasional cow, goats, horses (sorry about that) and much hay baling of the swishing grass. If you have passed the time with the Great Russian authors and poets you must agree they did a much better job of waxing lyrical about the steppes than me. Perhaps we should just leave it to them.

Of course sometimes things don’t actually work out as planned and today the border was closed to vehicle traffic. Sergei met us on the Kazakh side and then helped with my bags across the very short border crossing. Emigration took about a minute, immigration a little less and he had parked his car very close to the barrier which meant leaving one country and arriving in another took about five minutes, there was no sign of Customs. It was an almost pleasant experience.




The rolling steppe.


Outings in Georgia.

There’s lots of famous scenery to be seen around the world and up there with the best must be Scotland, the Rocky Mountains, Santorini etc, but why is the North Caucasus of Georgia never mentioned? I took an early morning tour out of Tbilisi and headed north through the usual car sales strips, the out of town Malls until the countryside began with a rather charming banner across the road announcing ‘Happy Journey.’ There were more churches on crags to be seen and after an hour or so we began to climb, climb I should add out of the 110 degree (43C) heat of the plains into the cooler mountain air. First stop was at Ananuri, a village beside a reservoir featuring a castle containing two churches dating back three or four hundred years. But what a lovely name, Ananuri, almost as charming as the name of the local currency, the Lari with a trill on the R. It was crowded in the parking lot and the power was out so no tea and off up the Georgian Military Highway we went, headed for Russia.

Up and up, above the clouds were the hang gliders soar; it was all very, um, photogenic. We passed through Alpine like villages set about with chalets and condos, the occasional ski lift, obviously winter sports are big business in the winter. To the top of the pass at 2,400 meters (8,000 ft) and down into the pretty town of Kazbegi strangely renamed Stepantsminda, but nobody calls it that. There was an odd hint of India as we drove into town, cows in the road, wandering cows, cows sleeping all over. I asked but all I got was shrug. It is clearly a centre for hikers and outdoor enthusiasts but what struck me most were the trucks pouring through to and from Russia. The wait to clear customs at the border was obviously lengthy and there were trucks parked beside the road for miles and miles, waiting. I saw British trucks, Spanish, French, Italian; it was quite extraordinary, think of the mileage. The most famous ‘church on a crag’ in Georgia is just outside Kazbegi and at 2200m or over 7,000 feet you have to wonder, how did they build it all up there.

The next tour that the amiable Sofia and Khatia arranged for me was to the old capital of Georgia, Mtskheta, it’s got a ch in it somewhere, not too far out of Tbilisi and features, yes, and you’ve guessed it, “a church on a crag.” Sorry about all the churches but as Georgia was the first country to adopt Christianity they do feature rather largely in any description. The cragged one, Jvari, is reputed to be the first Georgian church and stands high over the plain with fabulous views over the old city and the confluence of a couple of rivers. I managed to squeeze my visit in between the coach loads and my guide did what he did at all the churches we visited, went off and lit candles. Fine with me. Down the mountain to the old city where it was incredibly hot and there were many pauses for water. There is a cathedral in Mtskheta, a huge affair containing within its interior two more churches, I don’t think I have seen that before. Interesting though to think this has been a Christian center since 327.

I had an enquiry about the political situation in the Caucuses and replied that it is complicated. For a start when I was in Batumi I befriended a large holidaying family from Baku the grandmother of which was an English teacher. Lots of friendly chats with grandmother translating for all the different ages, wine flowed and food shared until she asked me where I was going next. Armenia I replied upon which she burst into tears “You must not go, they are killing our people.” No arguing with that so I didn’t go to Armenia. Its all about Nagorno-Karaback which is either Armenian or Azeri and there is an ongoing war to determine which. I didn’t judge it expedient to try and learn more from the grandmother. As far as I can determine it was Azeri and is now Armenian. One of the results of this is that there is a tiny area of old Azerbaijan isolated in Armenia and hard up against the Iranian border called Naxcivan with no way in or out except by plane. Images of the Berlin Airlift of the late 40s spring to mind and I simply cannot figure out how it manages to exist, but its there and it exists. The Azeri authorities are very sensitive about this and if you have an Armenian stamp in your passport they wont let you into Azerbaijan. At the border from Georgia the Azeri the guards went through my bag looking for Armenian products, I had none.

Then of course there are South Ossetia and Abkhazia, both of which were at one time part of Georgia but are now under the control of Russia. There are terrible stories about these two breakaway regions and the 1991 wars were particularly brutal. The UK Foreign Office and US State Department do not recommend travel to either and I wasn’t going to challenge their recommendations but I did glimpse South Ossetia from the train outside Gori, the birthplace of Stalin.

I’m a big fan of Georgia now and wholeheartedly endorse it as a worthwhile destination for its food, wine and fabulous scenery. Of course you could do worse than staying at the Penthouse Hotel on Metekhi street and do say hi to Sofia and Khatia from me.


Tbilisi Old Town by day.


They have the best balconies in Tbilisi.


These are the famous sulfur baths.


Spectacular Tbilisi.




North Caucasus Mountains.


More mountains.


Trucks lining up to enter Russia.


The Tsminda Sameba Church, Kazbegi.




Jvari Church, Mtskheta.


Here is Svetitskhoveli Cathedral in Mtskheta.


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I like the view from the river.

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Thank you.