19 July 2008

The Two Tonys: Spencer and Hadley

Stills from Karaoke at Tony's Not-50th Birthday
Above - Kiki & Elton
Below - Ryan has been secretly practising

Remember - I have the movies!

14 July 2008

Its just a "Hoisin Duck Wrap" - £2.25 from Boots at LHR - but just count all the ingredients!

10 July 2008

And so to Georgia...

I went with Regent Holidays - I have travelled with them several times - right up there with Pettitts and Baltics and Beyond)

Start of my big trip to Georgia with BMI out of a quiet and now civilised Heathrow T1

I saw the terrain on Google Earth and decided to visit (Update 2012 - sadly the amazing photos have been replaced with some less spectacular - it was strange - all of Georgia at low res and then this small patch of top quality photos - just by coincidence by the Gates of Alan - the main route to/from Chechnya.)

Anyway - go and look in Google Earth - follow the river North from 42 deg 44 min N 44 38 min E - on the main road from Tbilisi to Vladikavkaz - and see just how narrow the gorge gets - 250m wide at the bottom rising by 1500m in 2km on the west and 800m in 1km on the East

Everywhere they went the Russians leave a little reminder - this is tin-tits in Tbilisi - there is a bigger one in Kiev...

After an 05:00 arrival and a 2 hour walking tour of the city - I was ready for my first Georgian breakfast - Cheese pie and all the trimmings (including a rather nice glass or two of local vodka - sun definitely not yet over-the-yardarm not withstanding)

On the way to the mountains we stopped at a church

(there is no picture - only sound)


Having seen this in 2006 I was expecting much the same in Wroclaw (Racławice Panorama) - how wrong could I be

Stunning location though

Awful artwork in the middle of Awe Inspiring Scenery. Here is the story...

Do you know what these plants are? I think they are an example of mountain gigantism - like the lobelia on Kilimanjaro

The food was very nice (restaurant on the way to the mountains)

Every bridge has its cows - apparently it is cooler and there are fewer flies
So after grazing and milking the cows make their way onto the highway and thence to the nearest bridge for some serious cud chewing

Sadly this is as close the border as we could go. Was closed by the Russians because
"To tell us which way to vote" and it stays closed because "We voted the wrong way"

This is the Gate of the Alans in the Darial Gorge on the Georgian Military Road (not literally the green and white gate in the photo - but the pass through the mountains) - was the traditional invasion route into and out of Georgia - though the Russians (using German WWII prisoners I believe) dug some tunnels - and it one was of these they used for the 2008 invasion a week or so after my visit.

In the hotel at Stepantsminda - a fantastic location (follow the link) - sadly little infrastructure because the locals have, what was described to me as, a typical mountain tribe attitude - if anyone (outsider or local, especially a local) tries to get ahead by starting a nice little business or coffee shop - it gets torched - this is not an anti-development attitude rather just a something that makes sense in local cultural context and no sense at all to anyone else. This was not Tbilisi talk either - my driver was born and raised in Stepantsminda and this is what he says.  The rather unappetising 'cow pats' were actually a nice spinach and cheese mixture.

The road to nowhere (currently and for the foreseeable future)

South Ossettia over the hills and the walking route to Russia off the the right (there was a road but all there is left is the carcass of an abandoned JCB and a crumbling muletrack). There was a fantastic summer house that would be worth millions in the alps - but now abandoned.   A few Georgian soldiers camping nearby waiting for the Russians

Definitely not IP2X (or IP anything at all!) - still working though

Since the Russians closed the road - business is slow - I bought some water and some biccies and I think I was the only customer that evening.

View West from the hotel restaurant in Stepantsminda. The mountain is Kazbek - a little over 5000m high and (from time to time) visible from the hills above Tbilisi some 70 miles away (I have a photo to prove this). The forests are full of amazing wild flowers - well up to Belarus standard.

Entering Gori - birthplace of Stalin - touristic destination of the Vladikavkaz Military Industrial Complex Social Club Jolly-Boys Outing August 2008

Me, Uncle Joe and my (French speaking) Guide

Stalin's Throne

At a restaurant just outside Gori you will find the best Khinkali in all of Georgia

(I made a mess of eating these - put to shame by members of the local wrestling team who were having a littl post training carbo-load). Here is Khinkali explained...

A last minute cheese pie-purchase before getting on the train to Baku - very nice girl spoke good English having travelled to UK - pies throughout Georgia very nice and spookily similar to those found in Bosnia.

Above - main station in Tbilisi
Below - waiting for departure (it was on time)

You have to buy your bedding - wiped me out of my last Georgian currency...

But the attendant took pity on me and the tea was free (the space-age antique tea glass was not for sale unfortunately)

Amazing heroic age of space tea glass holder on the Tblisi to Baku Night Train
The VERY slow train to Baku - all to do with making our arrival in Azerbaijan at a sensible time in the morning

Industrial decay on the way to Azerbaijan

for a 100 miles it was nothing by abandoned and crumbling heavy industry? What future Georgia - no oil, no gas - so practically no friends.

This is on the Georgia-Azerbaijan border

 in the middle of the night it comes alive as customs and border guards invade the train looking for contraband and so on (with antiquated Russian made military issue cameras-on-sticks to look into every crevice and cranny). All officials (and there were a lot of them) were polite and helpful passing along the message that there was a foreign tourist in the compartment and hurry up with the paperwork.

No photos allowed at Baku station - met by two very nice and efficient gentlemen - for the whirlwind tour of the city.

According to the Azerbaijanis Mr Gorbachov was not keen to let their little oil rich republic go when the Soviet Union collapsed, so there was quite a lot of shooting of unarmed demonstrators - a case of too much oil and therefore too many 'friends'.

Hotel Absheron, Baku - I loved it - especially the breakfasts

Above... really quite a nice hotel - good value for money - full of CIS travellers and no westerners.. I went for a nice evening walk round the town - greeted by a fellow non-oil-worker - an American living in Baku - even though I thought I was dressed right I must have had "foreigner" written all over me.

A nice relaxed atmosphere - lots of folks walking along the 'corniche' but one look at the oil layer forming the top surface of the Caspian and it was clear why no one was going for a paddle.

Below... inside my hotel in Baku - right next to the parliament house and a monument to Soviet architecture - I wonder how many official delegations stayed there before the fall (all go to the Le Meridien now I suppose).

oops - outside the lift on my floor...

Funny - I stayed in that hotel back in May this year... but its in Minsk and this is Baku

Cards from the hotel that I stayed in 5 weeks before in Belarus... is this the FSB
letting me know that they know...

For a set of my better Caucasus pictures check {here}