Afghanistan – The Upside

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The Flag of Afghanistan

Even the national flag is a little ominous. Maybe if we’d left the Afghans alone they’d have a clown and party balloons on a rainbow background? Then again maybe not. It’s not like the taliban are famous for partying hard into the night and delighting children with their impressions of Mickey Mouse is it? That’s the trouble with fundamentalists they just don’t have very much fun.

It’s an unfortunate place that we begin our journey. Afghanistan has been invaded more times in the last decades than most countries have in centuries. The relatively unassuming locals have had the misfortune to be “strategically desirable” to a whole host of superpowers, starting with the British who having successfully conquered most of the world found Afghanistan impossible to hold onto. More recent failures include the Russian occupation and of course the current US-led occupation.

The thing is it’s a hard country and hard places breed hard people. The average Afghan couldn’t care less about geo-politics and almost certainly had no idea who Osama Bin Laden was until the day America invaded. That’s partly because the taliban had stolen all their television sets and they couldn’t keep up with CNN.

It’s a bigger shame that I’ll never be able to travel to the country, it’s always been on my list of places to visit since I read Nick Danziger’s excellent book and his trials and tribulations there.

Bamiyan Buddhas No More

As you can see, despite the lack of Buddhas, Bamiyan is still an area of outstanding natural beauty. You can only imagine how much effort it was to carve out that niche in the cliff a thousand years ago.

Of course at the time the biggest tourist highlight was the Bamiyan Buddha’s. Now there’s a big bag of dust where Mullah Omar and his cronies blew them up. This isn’t a total write off because by complete chance he also blew the walls off an old cave complex at the same time. So now there’s a lot of extra space to appreciate the gaps in the walls.

There is some talk of rebuilding the Buddhas but this seems a tad on the lunatic side given Afghanistan’s bigger problems that include the re-emergence of the taliban themselves.

Believe it or not, this is the upside piece for Afghanistan so let’s look at where I would go if only they wouldn’t shoot me for trying. The Buddhist traces of Afghan history are alive and relatively well in Aibak, which is now called Samangan. If you fancied it you could stop at the market and pick up some local instruments, of course it might be harder to find a dutar (it’s a sort of lute but with only two strings) teacher for an infidel afterwards.

But you’d be better off heading into the cave complex of Takht-e Rostam and getting a feel for the 4th century Buddhist vibe. Of all the world’s religions Buddhism has a certain appeal to me, and though I don’t intend to sign up any time soon – I like the idea of enlightenment as long as I don’t have to work too hard for it.

Mount Damavand, Afghanistan

There’s no denying that one of the main attractions of Afghanistan is its relationship with the Himalayas. This shot makes you want to grab your hiking boots and head off despite the risks. Not that I actually would but I like to dream all the same. Danziger’s descriptions of wandering the road and into the nations beyond make this one of the destinations I’ll always be sorry I couldn’t visit. I’d like to do it in a little more comfort than he did though. I’m not keen on using sand for toilet roll.

If you’d rather get a feel for a mellower Afghanistan it’s all North of the Hindu Kush. In the town of Balkh, one of the world’s oldest religions – Zoroastrianism – was conceived. Alexander the Great is reputed to have popped in here to get himself a wife, which goes to show Afghanistan has had marauders wandering through for a very long time indeed.

The place to go in this area is supposed to be Mazar-e-Sharif, which has a really cool shrine (Hazrat Ali). There are some seriously beautiful blue domes there. If you really want something to brag about you could head on up into the mountains and get friendly with the Pamirs.

I’m not really a big fan of post-apocalyptic tourism of any kind so Kabul wouldn’t be high on my itinerary. Thanks to the combined efforts of the current invaders the city was reduced pretty much to rubble and while it is being rebuilt, and I’m told the locals are lovely when they’re not trying to kill you, there’s no electricity and water in 99% of it. Most of the buildings are pretty new if nothing special to look at.

The real appeal of Afghanistan is obviously its place next to the Himalayas and it is a genuine shame that the country will never open up in my lifetime. I suspect if we hadn’t spoiled it for ourselves it could have been, like most Muslim nations, a friendly and interesting place. There’s certainly enough history there.

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Abkhazia – Is it worth the effort?

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Abkhazia Mountains

I like mountain scenery and I think you’ll agree the Caucasus mountains can be very lovely indeed. Whether you’d make the trip to Abkhazia just for this is a different question.

So we’ve established it’s a bit of a pain to travel to Abkhazia mainly because no-one wants to acknowledge it’s a real country except Russia. Sadly for most of us that means getting into Russia before getting permission to see Abkhazia.

If you do turn up then don’t spend too much time investing your money in Abkhazian Aspar, as it’s completely worthless outside of Abkhazia. For all intents and purposes the functional currency of the nation is the Russian Rouble. At this time of writing there are approximately 30 Rubles to the Dollar.

Staying is Cheap But Don’t Forget the Language Barrier

You can rent a room from a housing office in any city. Basically they send you to live with some locals and you pay a small fee for the privilege. That’s around 200 – 250 roubles, so $7-$8 a day. There is a single hotel in most cities but the prices are much higher if you want some English speaking assistance. Nearly 10 times the stay in someone’s home rate to be precise.

However, you need to keep in mind that this is Russian territory and there isn’t much support (or any) for the English speaking tourist in the country. So you’d be well advised to grab a Russian phrasebook so you can at least point at it if you want a little help on your travels.

Where should I go?

Abkhazia Pitsunda Cathedral

If you like cathedrals then Pitsunda’s a very nice example of one. It’s a long way to go for a nice church though.

Stay the heck away from the border with Georgia. It’s still disputed and there have been shots fired in anger on regular occasions. You should also be aware that Organization for Security and Co-Operation in Europe is investigating the Abkhaz government for “ethnic cleansing” in the area too, and they probably won’t welcome the average Western camera toting tourist either.

So head northeast and check out the mountains, the Caucasus Mountains run right along the top of the country and have three other ranges of “spurs” pointing down into the country too. As you’d expect when mountains come into play, it’s pretty cool (average annual temperature is about 15 degrees centigrade) so take a coat.

Or venture into the Tsebelda valley, which is attractively forested and conceals Tibilium a 6th century Byzantine fort. You’ll also find Amtkel lake, a massive mountain lake, that formed after an earthquake in 1891. The water level surges quickly in the Summer and the views are said to be some of the most striking in the caucuses.

Sukhum’s a favourite of Russian tourists and they flock to the striking (and slightly less communist bloc) architecture and the waterfront. It’s a nice place to stop for a few drinks and take some photos.

Or if you’re a keen spelunker you might fancy Novy Afon, which is a huge cave complex. If you’re lucky the Abkhazian National Choir might be popping through to sing in one of the halls (Aphyartsa) as it has extraordinary acoustics.

The best reason to go to Abkhazia is the wine. It upsets the folks in that part of the world that only the Russians recognize how much great plonk comes out of the region as a whole. Abkhazia is no exception and you could take a vineyard tour and get pleasantly sloshed for peanuts (particularly compared to Australia or France).

Is Abkhazia on my list of places to go?

Abkzhazia Novy Afon

This is Novy Afon where the cave system is. The shot’s clearly been a little photoshopped but it does like a pleasant place to while some time away nonetheless.

There’s something very appealing about visiting a rogue state where the likelihood of getting shot is minimal. Having said that, as much as I like a drink there doesn’t seem to be quite enough to do to keep you interested for more than a couple of days. It’s a long tedious visa process too and I hate dealing with officialdom at the best of times, sending a fax and begging for an entry permit is OK. But then having to go to the capital and beg them to turn it into a visa seems a little over the top.

If I found myself in Russia for a long period of time, I’d probably go just to say I had. I like Eastern Europeans in general and I suspect that the food and drink are pretty good (and ridiculously cheap by Western standards). But… I don’t think I’ll go out of my way to visit either. If you get a chance check out the country’s tourist information site. Mainly for it’s curiously stilted English phrasing, it’s like they learned the language from a Sherlock Holmes novel. It’s really quite uplifting.

A Word of Warning

It might seem obvious but don’t buy property in disputed states. It doesn’t matter how cheap it is, or how often people tell you it will shoot up in value. If they day comes that Georgia gets back control of Abkhazia your “investment” will be worth less than nothing. Property at give away prices still isn’t cheap enough. It’s also a criminal offence in Georgia for you to buy a home in Abkhazia at the moment.

 

Abkhazia – It can be lonely being a country at times

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Abkhazia Flag

As you can see they’ve got a flag for Abkhazia and even if you won’t see it on a pole outside the UN anytime soon, it’s quite welcoming and friendly. Well except for the hand which might be saying “Hello!” but could be saying “Stay away!”

You’d think that given the strident defence of self-determination of people from the West that this principle would hold quite well when it actually happens. However, it seems there’s one rule for the Falkland Islands and quite another for the rest of the globe. In particular this is true when the “new nation” chooses to ally itself with Russia and not the rest of Europe.

Abkhazia is just such a place. It’s essentially part of Georgia, or was until quite recently. Then it decided it wasn’t and a “revolution” led to its break-away status. The revolution, as quite rightly noted by the Georgian government, would not have been terribly successful if it hadn’t been for the arrival of a lot of “Russian mercenaries” who lent a hand to Abkhazia. So at the moment most of the world refuses to recognize Abkhazia as a real country at all.

Abkhazia Tourism

There are certainly some interesting sites to be seen in Abkhazia even if they are a little run down.

There’s a small club of big nations that do including Russia (of course), Venezuela and Nicaragua. Then there’s a smaller club of tiny places such as Nauru, Vanuatu and Tuvalu that back that up, they don’t really get much of a vote on the international stage though so there support isn’t all that vital. Finally there are two other “disputed states” South Ossetia and Transnistria that say it’s a real country too and sadly, nobody listens to them at all. Georgia’s position is quite clear, they say it’s part of Georgia. My spell check is also on Georgia’s side as it doesn’t recognize Abkhazia either.

Travelling to Abkhazia

That means you have to visit Abkhazia from the Russian side of the border. Travelling to the nation/region (depending on your view point) from Georgia or coming back out again is a very bad idea. It’s punishable with a prison sentence. You’ll also want to make sure you don’t have their border stamp in your passport if you visit Georgia or the same thing will happen. But to get in from Russia, you need a double or multiple entry Russian visa. So mainly Abkhazia’s tourism industry relies on Russians who don’t need a visa at all.

Abkhazia Tourism

Abkhazia is a little war torn as you’d expect too.

If you’re committed to going to Abkhazia be aware that you can apply for an entry permit from their Russian consulate, but then you have to go to the capital city immediately to turn it into a visa after you arrive in Abkhazia. Which is an enormous pain in the bottom and you’d think a nation trying to establish its international credentials could try a bit harder to make tourism easier.

Another thing you need to be aware of is that your travel insurance provider won’t cover you in Abkhazia. That’s because there’s a general rule in place in the EU and the States that recommends you don’t travel to the country at all. Not because it’s inherently dangerous, though as with most developing nations that are economically isolated – you won’t want to spend any time using the local health service, but because it’s not playing the game the West wants it to. So be warned and investigate insurance in Russia instead.

In my next post we’ll take a look at what awaits the intrepid traveller brave enough to ignore the Georgian position.

 

Welcome to around the world in 257 countries

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This is a personal interest project. When I started my last blog, Shards of China, I was doing some research on GDP (it was more interesting than it sounds) and I found the poorest country in the world was Burundi in Africa.

That didn’t shock me, one country has to come last and I don’t think that it’s much of a surprise that it was on that much and unfairly maligned continent either. What did surprise me was that I knew absolutely nothing about Burundi. I couldn’t name its capital city or tell you a single fact about the place. That irked me. A lot.

I’ve been fortunate enough to travel the world. I’ve lived and worked on 5 out of the 6 continents and visited dozens of countries. Yet, there’s the gaping whole in my knowledge of the planet too. If I lived until a hundred I simply couldn’t visit everywhere and see everything. This is one of the few things in life that causes me a certain amount of regret. It’s not fair.

So as I’ve come to an uncomfortable moment in my life in China and I don’t really want to dwell on it every day at the moment, I’ve decided to launch a new blog. One that takes a walk around each nation on earth and looks at the good stuff (and the bad).

I’ve called this “around the world in 257 countries” because it was the longest list of nations I could find. However, there’s already an addition to that list – so please don’t take it literally. It’s also the first stop on my virtual travels, Abkhazia.

Shards of China, my last blog, taught me not to promise a delivery schedule and so I’m aiming for a post or two a week. Sometimes more, sometimes less.

In the rest of my life, I’m a professional writer. I’ve recently formed a company in Cambodia with a designer too, so it’s not quite as lonely a working life as before. However, the demands of the job are occasionally overwhelming and if I stop writing at times – it’s not that I’ve given up, it’s that my clients come first.

I will be returning to Shards of China at some point in the future too. Just not today. I’m not done with exploring the issues that great nation faces as it emerges as a super-power. I’d also very much like to complete my virtual tour of the place as well. For now, I hope you enjoy my virtual travels and you learn a little about the world. I’m looking forward to it very much indeed.