A quick visit to Warsaw with Polish, Belgian and Canadian friends!

After visiting Georgia, I had planned to fly out of Kutaisi on my favourite low-cost airline in Europe, Budapest-based WizzAir. Flights offered went to Budapest, Sofia, Katowice and Warsaw. I had been to all these cities except Warsaw, so the choice was easy. It was a quick few days, but enough to visit a beautiful town near the Belarus/Ukraine border and spend the week-end in Warsaw, with friends who would visit from Paris on the kind of super low-costs flights we can only dream of in North America.

Once more this story is very late and a little superficial, but I had a nice short stay in Poland; my second in two years, after my visit to Krakow, Auschwitz and the incredible salt mines of Wielicza.

Lublin is a pleasant and easy to reach city, host to a huge number of festivals (none of which were happening when I visited).


The 14th century Kraków Gate stands at the entrance to the Old City and is perhaps the most iconic symbol of the city.


At the center of the Old City, the Lublin Castle.


And at the center of the castle, the 13th century “Donjon.” Compared to many cities in Poland, Lublin was relatively undamaged during World War II. But the history is no less dramatic. Tens of thousands of Polish nationalists were detained by German authorities within the walls of the castle. Many died, but most were saved from being killed by the Germans when the Soviet Union liberated the city. Then they were killed by the Soviets.


My friends in Warsaw recommended I try Cebularz (onion cake), a traditional local recipe. Googling it also revealed the sad past of the area. This is a traditional Jewish recipe of the region. There used to be tens of thousands of Jews in Lublin. They had been allowed to settle there by King Casmir III in 1336. Today the recipe survives, but there is no longer a Jewish community here, apart from a handful of mainly elderly people. Continue reading

Writing about Georgia; better late than never.

In all these years of writing about my travels, I have often been late in publishing individual stories. I have been particularly prone to procrastination upon returning to Canada. But this time, I outright abandoned my blog for several months. The only thing that got me going again is the fact that I am travelling as I write these lines. I can’t really write about my current travels without first catching up, so here’s Georgia, a few months late. This will certainly be a little superficial, as I must admit I have forgotten some of the details.


The capital, Tbilisi, is pleasant to walk around and fairly compact when it comes to most things of interest to visitors. You can catch this panoramic view after a short cable car ride up to Narikala Fortress (free access, but in ruins and without much to see except the view). Or, if like me you hate cable cars, you can walk up there in a fairly short time.


The domed roofs indicate the presence of bathhouses, which have been operating in the city for hundreds of years, due to naturally occurring sulphurous springs. Persian, Turkish and even Soviet architectural influences indicate which empire had invaded the country on the year a particular bathhouse was built.


Old Tbilisi is known for its omnipresent, ornate balconies. Unfortunately, many, like this one, are in dire need of restauration.


The city also boasts several very modern constructions, such as the now iconic Bridge of Peace (pedestrian only).


And the Musical Theatre and Exhibition Hall which, like the bridge, is adjacent to the lovely Rike Park. In the background, the Presidential Palace. Continue reading

Armenia. I’m glad I went last month.

I usually write about a country after my visit is done. Sometimes, I am a couple of weeks late. In this case, I had decided to finish my Armenia story this week-end. As it happens, the last 48 hours saw the worse violence between “Armenia” and Azerbaijan since the end of the Nagorno-Karabakh war in 1994. Here is the situation in a nutshell:

1) There have been tensions and wars for centuries between the Armenians, the first people to adopt Christianity as a State Religion in the early 4th century, and the Turkic Azerbaijanis, their Muslim, albeit now very secular, neighbours.

2) Before and during the collapse of the USSR, the ethnic Armenians of the Nagorno-Karabakh region demanded their independence. Protests and sporadic violence irrupted into an all out war between 1992 and 1994. 30,000 people died and vast numbers were forced from their homes. Nagorno-Karabakh went from being 75% Armenian to nearly 100%. Almost all Armenians left Azerbaijan and vice-versa.

3) Except for other self-declared breakaway territories like Abkhazia or Transnistria (which I visited), no country recognizes the Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh. It is de jure part of Azerbaijan, but de facto independent since 1994. I even heard some Armenians refer to it as part of Armenia.

4) In the first paragraph, I referred to “Armenia”. I used the quotes because the conflict is nominally between NK and Azerbaijan, but NK is massively supported by Armenia, financially and militarily.

5) Turkey is 100% on the side of Azerbaijan, among many reasons because they share a similar and mutually intelligible language, a religion and a hatred of Armenians. Russia has a good but complicated relation with Azerbaijan. I believe they are closer to Armenia and have several military bases in the country. But they sell weapons to both sides. Iran has historically been more on Armenia’s side, but seems to be more on the fence these days. This is a little surprising since Iran and Azerbaijan are the only 2 majority Shia countries in the world and there are more ethnic Azerbaijanis in Iran than in Azerbaijan. Perhaps this shows that although I mentioned the religious differences, they do not have the same importance here as they have in Middle Eastern conflicts, for example.

6) Since the 1994 cease-fire there have been periodic border clashes, but on April 1st 2016, heavy fighting started again. As I am writing this about 48 hours later, the fighting is ongoing, although Azerbaijan has just announced a unilateral ceasefire.


A street sign downtown Yerevan. I don’t know what it says, but explanations are not really required.

Since Azerbaijan and Armenia do not have formal relations and the border is closed, I actually went to Georgia first by overnight train. I spent a couple of days there, but I will write about it later. I then took the bus to Yerevan, the capital of Armenia. It was quite the experience.


First, before crossing the border, everyone was buying soap. Like, tens of kilos of soap. I tried to understand why but couldn’t find an answer. Taxes? Cheaper? Our minibus was also filled to capacity with the vast quantities of luggage carried by three women. According to an older Ukrainian couple who could talk to them in Russian, they were likely involved in some sort of minor contraband headed for Turkey. Since the land border is closed, I don’t know if this makes any sense, but the point is that they looked suspicious.

The Caucasus border procedures for westerners, in two words.

Azerbaijan: Efficient, bureaucratic.

Georgia: Efficient, easy.

Armenia: Chaos, more chaos.

I waited in line for a good 20 minutes to be told by the border agent that I needed a visa on arrival, something I already knew. I said “how much”? He said they were sold somewhere else. I had no idea and there were no signs to that effect. So I walked to a different building and waited in line, filled some paperwork, paid the fee and went back to do the 20 minute line again, because the agent who sold the visa was not authorized to stamp it. I found the minibus and apologized to the Ukrainian couple for delaying everybody (they were the only ones who spoke some English). They said not to worry, the bus was not going anywhere. It had gone through immigration easily, but was stuck at customs, certainly because of the unusual amount of luggage.


In the end, everyone had to open their suitcases so the border guard (just outside of the photo) could see what was inside. With nothing else to do, all the passengers gathered around to see what people had in their bags. Then we waited again forever, probably while the guards decided what “tax” the 3 women had to pay. During this whole thing I just waited in the shade a few meters away. When the driver got back in the bus, I boarded and we took off, my bag completely unchecked by anyone. In total, crossing the border took 1.5 – 2 hours

Now don’t get me wrong, Armenia is a very pleasant country to visit, but it has its quirks. Superficially, if I had to make a light-hearted comparison, I would say it is the Albania of the Caucasus.

The Ukrainian couple asked me if I wanted to share a taxi to visit attractions outside the capital. I agreed and we spend the next morning touring around. We bought the driver lunch and paid him US$20, for 5 hours. Not a price I would have been able to negotiate in English. This highlights the fact that Armenia is the poorest country in the Caucasus. The political situation hurts a lot. Turkey imposes various sanctions on Armenia to the West and there are no relations with Azerbaijan to the East. Because of this, the pipeline built between Baku and Turkey had to do a long and costly detour through Georgia. As a result, Georgia gets large annual transit fees, and Armenia gets nothing.

Although I have no facts to back this up, I also noticed in several former Soviet Republics, especially the poor ones, that young women are often very well dressed, with hair and make-up all done up, even when the occasion doesn’t warrant it. Some of my Eastern European friends have explained that for many, the best prospect in life is marrying a rich guy, so they never want to miss an opportunity by looking scruffy. It was certainly the case in Moldova and Belarus (although the later is not that poor).


I know this is a crappy (and a little creepy) picture, but you will have to take my word for it: these beautiful women would never work at cashing and bagging groceries in North America. Hostesses in a nice restaurant or barmaids in a trendy bar would be far more likely – and far more lucrative – options. But when another tourist and I mentioned this in front of our hotel manager, she said dismissively: “I would never work in bar”. Social conservatism was the issue here, not working conditions. Serving drinks to strange men is apparently not a “proper” occupation for some more traditional Armenian women.


The people of Turkey, Russia and Iran have long had a passion in common; invading the Caucasus. But I didn’t know the Romans also shared that particular hobby. In fact, I had to Google a map of the Roman Empire to realize that it had expanded so far to the North-East (in the 2nd century it even controlled a bit of territory that is modern day Russia). This is the Temple of Garni, the only such surviving structure in Armenia. Built in the 1st century, it honours the sun God Mirh. For my follow Celts, this false God roughly corresponds to the real God Belenos. Continue reading

You can’t place Azerbaijan on a map? Doesn’t matter, go anyway. It’s really nice.

This is the first picture I took in Azerbaijan.


What could possibly be interesting about this picture? To you, probably nothing. To me, it was amazing. Cars stopped to allow pedestrians to cross! A kind of civility I had not seen in a long time. But as a matter of fact, the country has a reputation for poor driving habits and a high rate of traffic fatalities. This only shows how everything is relative and a matter of perspective.

I didn’t know much about Azerbaijan before visiting. But I joked with my girlfriend that after a month in India, I would almost certainly like Azerbaijan no matter what.


The contrast was more than extreme! A city with sidewalks and pedestrian streets. They don’t smell like urine. People throw garbage in garbage bins. Cars drive for vast distances without ever honking. Young women walk in the streets after dark, unconcerned about getting raped. After weeks in India, I could not believe the utopia that was Baku and I walked around with a constant stupid grin on my face. People probably assumed I was a little deranged.


Despite the fairly cold March weather, a lot of people were walking around in the beautiful parks. I saw many people walking about with no apparent purpose, so I am guessing that just “going for a walk” is a popular activity. The city is certainly designed and maintained to make it pleasant. On a side note, you may notice a woman with a head scarf in the picture. Despite the country being around 95% Muslim on paper, it is a very secular place and this is a highly unusual sight. Maybe the only one I saw, aside from some Turkish(?) tourists. In fact, in school and universities, head scarves are banned. Most old women wear them, but that is not a Muslim thing at all, just an “old Soviet woman” thing. Any convenience store, grocery store, restaurant or cafe will also have all the beer and vodka you can drink in stock.


Honestly, if I said: “Look at this nice picture I took in Brussels”, you would believe me, yes?


Even the KFC looks nice! Continue reading

The Best of India: the “Golden Backslash”

Taj Mahal. Taj Mahal. Taj Mahal.


Complete with a stray dog, for that extra Indian feeling.


There’s no debating this, it is a beautiful building, even partially covered in scaffolds. It was also built by a smart architect, Ustad Ahmad Lhauri. The dome was very difficult and expensive to build with 17th century technology. So the 4 minarets are slightly crooked, leaning 3 degrees outwards. The idea is that in case of a massive earthquake, they would probably not fall on the dome.


The fountains only run when dignitaries visit. You would think that with 8 million paying visitors a year, they could afford to run the pumps all day, but no.




The huge amount of stone inlaying might explain why it took 20,000 workers 20 years to complete the building. Continue reading

Amazing New Delhi: The City that Never Sweeps

So, after my visa run in Nepal, I was back in India, much to my despair (if you don’t know why I write this, you haven’t read why I hated travelling in India). That being said, I will only complain for a few short sentences. Collectively, Indians are very aware of the challenges they face. At least the educated ones. While having breakfast, I found two articles in the same paper addressing two of the things I disliked the most about the country.


1) Terrible driving habits. Said the senior Indian official: “I was travelling from New York to Washington and I was surprised to see that for several kilometres there were no traffic cops at any junction but the traffic was still moving without any interruption. It can happen here too…” Now that’s the spirit!


2) Lack of public hygiene. “That India has little time when it comes to cleaning up is a no-brainer”, writes the editorialist.


In the end, it’s really a problem of mindset. This is next to some Army Officer’s Mess. There is plenty of open space around. There are roofs, etc. I mean WTF! Clotheslines dudes! CLOTHESLINES! Who wants a towel that dried on the sidewalk?

Ok, enough. Some touristy stuff now.


The Tomb of Humayoun. I had never heard of it and I expected nothing. I was very impressed. It’s a beautiful site not to be missed. The dude was an early 16th century Muslim Emperor who ruled at various times of his life parts of what is now India, Pakistan and Afghanistan.



He was either a very small man, or they really packed him tight in there. Continue reading

My second trip to Nepal. Or being at the right place at the wrong time.

First of all, a milestone. This is my 200th travel story. I didn’t count them, but I number the folders, so I know. Soooo many trips…

As I mentioned before, I came to Nepal for an Indian visa run. It was the best option, despite the fact that this was perhaps not the best time to visit Nepal. Don’t get me wrong, I love Nepal, but a multitude of factors contributed to making this stay difficult, some of which I did not expect.

Of course I knew about the terrible 2015 earthquake that killed nearly 9,000 people. There was actually a fairly strong aftershock when I was there, around 5.4 in magnitude. I am rather unafraid of earthquakes, almost certainly stupidly so. I looked outside to see if people were panicking and went back to bed. In the news, I read there were only a few people injured, mainly tumbling down the stairs trying to rush out of buildings.

In most places, the aftermath was not visible to a foreigner. Of course to the Nepalis, it might still be apparent in that the vacant lot I was looking at used to have a building on it.


But scenes like these were rare. The Nepali are not afraid of hard work, so I guess a lot of clean-up and repair has occurred in the last 7 months.


The one place you could easily observe it was at monuments of historical importance, as obviously, tearing it down and rebuilding is not an option. Several structures around temples were being shore up like this, pending more serious repairs.


The disaster left 3.5 million people homeless, and tent cities can still be seen around Kathmandu. In the countryside, I also saw lots of people living in a basic hut located next to a pile of stones. Obviously, the piles of stones used to be their houses.

A more recent, man made crisis, is the critical shortage of fuel. In a nutshell, Nepal has a complicated, conflictual relationship with its main trading partner, India. Also, border tribes are unhappy about recent constitutional reforms. As a result, both tribal groups and India block most of the fuel from transiting into the oil-less nation. India denies doing that, but if they are not, then all the fuel trucks entering Nepal must mysteriously disappear, abducted by aliens, because they certainly don’t make it to the petrol station.


A line of buses waiting for fuel. If I understood correctly, only public transportation vehicles can get fuel at petrol stations. Private vehicles are entirely reliant on the black market, where prices exceed US$2 a litre. This might seem like a bargain for my Norwegian friends, but it is extremely expensive for impoverished Nepal. The Chinese are partially stepping up, but fuel exports through Tibet must cross the Himalayas, which is expensive and always a little precarious. I know, I took that road a few years ago (very nice mountain pictures along that road BTW).

Intercity ground transport in Nepal comes in 3 forms. Local buses, which are dirt cheap but terrible. Tourist buses, which are 10 times more expensive but OK. And private taxis, which are 50-100 times more expensive, but nice to very nice. During my last visit, I took the tourist bus to Pokhara. But because of the crisis and lack of tourists, most tourist buses we not running, so I had to rely on very expensive taxis. And again because of the lack of tourists, I never found someone to share them with. Once, I thought of taking a local bus, but I chickened out. I felt a bit like a wuss, until my taxi caught up with said bus.


Never mind the comfort, it’s just not safe. Although when it’s not raining, riding on the roof is fun. Continue reading