The Caucasus, Central Asia And British Airways

caucasus and central asia

I traveled to Beirut earlier this year with bmi (British Midland International), the East Midlands-based airline partially absorbed into British Airways in the spring. My Beirut trip was meant to be the third installment in an ongoing series called “Far Europe and Beyond,” which reached a premature end in the lead-up to the airline’s sale to International Airlines Group (IAG), the parent of British Airways and Iberia.

“Far Europe and Beyond” was, as its title suggests, focused on several cities along on Europe’s margins and just beyond. I visited Tbilisi and Yerevan last year, Beirut earlier this year, and had hoped to carry on to three additional cities, one (Baku) within Europe and Almaty and Bishkek (see above), both indisputably outside of Europe.

BA has absorbed many bmi routes and withdrawn others. I did a little cursory research and discovered that two of the cities I originally proposed for the series (Bishkek and Yerevan) have been dropped – as has Tehran, where the Yerevan-London bmi flight I took last October originated.

Last week, in response to an email query, a helpful British Airways spokesperson confirmed that the above destinations have indeed not been included in BA’s winter schedule. When I asked whether or not BA had any intention to initiate new routes to the Caucasus and Central Asia, she told me that there were no immediate plans to do so, and added that she suspected that future route development would focus on destinations further east. She also pointed out that the airline has just begun to fly nonstop between London and Seoul, an exciting development in light of the ascendance of Korean popular culture and the recent debut of a Seoul-based correspondent at Gadling.

Here’s a little plea to British Airways: please bring these cities back, perhaps looped into other routes on a once-a-week basis. What about a stop in Bishkek coming back from Almaty or a stop in Yerevan en route to Tbilisi?If these routes can’t be returned to service, perhaps they could be replaced with similarly enthralling new destinations in the general neighborhood, all direct from London. What about a flight to Uralsk, gateway to the gas reserves of West Kazakhstan’s Karachaganak Field? How about seasonal flights to Georgia’s Black Sea holiday town of Batumi? What about making a big pre-Olympic fuss over Sochi? (The 2014 Winter Olympics are just 15 months away.) Why not resume a previously abandoned route to Ekaterinburg?

Pleasing me would form a terrible basis for route development decisions, granted, but there have to be profitable routes in this general region that are not served by other oneworld alliance airlines.

Do it for the love of commerce and industry in the post-Soviet space, BA.

[Image: Flickr | Thomas Depenbusch]

Visiting The Sacred Sites Of Shia Islam

Shia, Iraq, Iraq travel, Iraq tourism
“She wants you to take her picture,” a man said when the old woman in the black abaya came up to me.

We were standing in the mosque of Imam Husayn in Karbala, Iraq. This is one of the holiest shrines for Shia Islam. It was near here that Imam Husayn, son of Imam Ali, was killed along with his supporters by the Caliph Yazid. The Shia believe that Ali and Hussein were the rightful successors to the Prophet Mohammad. The Sunnis believe that the Ummayid Caliphs like Yazid had that honor. For the Shia, Husayn’s martyrdom has become a symbol of their oppression at the hands of corrupt governments.

I got that message loud and clear as soon as I raised my camera.

The woman tore into a litany about the martyrdom of Imam Husayn, describing his justness, his bravery, and his death at the hands of treacherous soldiers. I couldn’t follow it all but I knew the story, how a massive army surrounded Husayn and his few dozen followers in the desert, how the women and children begged for water and were shot with arrows. How the men fought bravely and were killed off one by one. The woman started crying, her voice breaking as it increased in volume.

I wondered who else she was crying for.

During the rule of Saddam Hussein – a Sunni – the Shia got kicked around. Many disappeared into his jails and torture chambers. Their neighborhoods always got fewer municipal funds. They were the last hired and first fired. Then Saddam invaded Kuwait in 1990.
The U.S.-led forces soon pushed the Iraqi army out of Kuwait and President Bush called on the Iraqi people to overthrow Saddam. Shia, Kurds, and some Sunnis answered that call. The rebels took over several key cities and most of the provinces. Saddam had all the heavy weaponry, though. Saddam had the tanks. The rebels called on the U.S. for help.

The U.S. government launched some missiles, extended the no-fly zone, and said some very nasty things about Saddam, but otherwise did nothing.

Saddam’s reprisals were terrible. Nobody knows how many civilians were killed. The mass graves are still being discovered. There was more than just religious fervor coming out of that woman, there was a lifetime of suffering. I doubt there’s a single Shia in Iraq who doesn’t know someone who died because of Saddam.

%Gallery-171120%The old woman finished her testimony and she gestured that I could go. As I walked away I kept turning back to see her watching me, tears in her eyes.

It seemed that everyone in the mosque wanted to talk with me, and it was the same in the shrine to Imam Ali in Najaf. As I sat on plush carpets under exquisite tile ceilings, the melodious sounds of Arabic prayers in the background, people kept coming up to me. Some were curious and asked where I was from and why I was there. Once I answered these questions they had reached the end of their English. They welcomed me, smiled and moved on. Others had better English and stopped to chat.

Parents pushed their kids forward to practice their English lessons. Others wanted to know if I was a Bosnian, the only European Muslims they were accustomed to seeing. Telling them I wasn’t a Muslim didn’t seem to make me any less welcome.

Many of the people I met were actually Iranian. Their country has an even greater Shia majority than Iraq, and has been ruled by Shia for centuries. Iranian pilgrims come to Iraq by the millions every year. Karbala and Najaf are almost as holy to the Shia as Mecca and Medina.

One of the best conversations was with two female engineering students from Iran. Bright eyed and friendly, they were delighted to learn that I’d been to their country and had visited that matchless city, Isfahan. There’s an old Persian proverb, “Esfahan Nesf-e Jahan” (“Esfahan is half the world”) and with its stunning mosques, soaring blue-green minarets, and sparkling river I couldn’t deny it.

The Shia shrines of Karbala and Najaf give Isfahan a run for its money, though. Some interiors are entirely made of multifaceted glass, with colored lights that make the walls and ceiling sparkle like jewels. Others have vast ceilings of paneled tiles like the one shown below. The graves of the martyrs are ornately decorated in gold, as are some of the doors.

Together the girls and I admired the architecture and they urged me to take my wife to Iran the next time I go.

“Oh, she would love it!” they said. “She should have come to Iraq too.”

“She was too scared to come.”

“Oh, it’s not dangerous,” they said.

I found their innocence touching. On second thought I realized they couldn’t be so naive. They were simply being welcoming. The Iranians did have more of a sense of optimism than the Iraqis. Although they, too, have had a succession of oppressive governments, at least they haven’t been persecuted for their faith.

It was pilgrimage season. The television was filled with images of the Hajj. People were visiting Karbala and Najaf in large numbers too. One night I flicked on the television in my hotel room and saw an announcer at the same mosque where I spoke with those Iranian students. It was a call-in show and as pilgrims mingled in the background, the announcer chatted with the callers.
They were almost exclusively women and almost all were crying. I couldn’t follow the conversations very well but I did pick up the names Husayn and Ali, as well as other male names, probably of the women’s relatives. And one name was repeated over and over again with a mixture of hatred and horror.

Saddam. Saddam. Saddam.

Don’t miss the rest of my series, “Destination: Iraq,” chronicling my 17-day journey across this strife-ridden country in search of adventure, archaeology, and AK-47s.

Coming up next: “Iraq Street Art: Beautifying the Blast Walls!”

[Photos by Sean McLachlan]

Shia, Iraq, Iraq tourism, Iraq travel

Travel Warning Issued: For Canada?

Previously voted the world’s most recommended country to visit just days ago, Canada’s popularity took a turn for the worse this week as Iran’s foreign ministry said Iranians should avoid travel to Canada.

The move was in response to Canadian diplomats walking out of the United Nations General Assembly on Wednesday before Iran president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad spoke about his vision for a “new world order,” reports CBC news.

Beating out Australia, Sweden and Switzerland for the second year in a row, the annual RepTrak study rated Canada number one after polling a panel of 36,000 people representing the G8 countries.

But earlier this month, the Canadian government announced the closing of its embassy in Tehran and expulsion of Iranian diplomats. After the boycott this week, Iran responded, saying criminals and “anti-Iranian groups” bent on revenge could now target Iranians visiting Canada, knowing they no longer have an embassy.

“I think it’s absolutely ridiculous,” Canada Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird said when asked about the travel advisory, speaking to reporters in the foyer of the House of Commons as reported by CBC. “And I think 99 percent of Canadians would share that view.”

Probably a lot of Americans too.


Flickr photo by SeattleRay

The Greatest Photo I Never Took

photo, travel photography, Ferris wheel
The Iranians love Ferris wheels. When I spent a month in Iran back in 1994 I saw them everywhere. The parks in the big cities had the big, brightly painted ones we’re familiar with in the West. Smaller towns and villages had more modest Ferris wheels, some small enough that they could be cranked by hand.

I saw dozens of them. The one that stands out most in my memory was in a dusty little roadside village I passed through while riding a bus. The village was nothing more than a few dozen houses lined up on either side of the highway. This was Iran, though, and so it had its own Ferris wheel. It was homemade out of unpainted boards and had four seats that looked like they were old footlockers. An old man was cranking it around and around for the little local boys and girls, who all had big smiles on their faces as they went up, around, down and up again.

While I only saw it for a moment, it remains one of my most vivid memories of Iran. I wish I could show you a photo but I was zipping by in a bus and so I never got the shot. Instead, here’s a photo Tracy Hunter took in India. This Ferris wheel is about the same size.

While we’re on the subject of travel photography, is there a shot you missed that remains stuck in your mind? Tell us about it in the comments section!

A Conversation With Rick Steves

Rick StevesRick Steves doesn’t want you to go to Orlando. For more than thirty years, Steves has been trying to sell Americans on leaving the country in his work as a tour guide, author and host of the PBS Series “Rick Steves’ Europe.” These days, Steves thinks that it’s more important than ever for Americans to travel overseas, both to broaden their own horizons and to serve as citizen diplomats who can help overcome stereotypes about America.

Steves, 57, still spends nearly four months each year researching his guidebooks on the ground in Europe, and says he’s not likely to retire anytime soon. His highly successful brand grew out of a love of travel that he inherited from his parents but evolved from his own wanderings after he graduated from the University of Washington with a degree in European History and Business.

After graduation, he returned to the university’s Experimental College to teach a class on budget travel in Europe, and in 1979, he self published the first edition of his now famous “Europe Through the Back Door” series. By the early ’80s, he was leading small minibus tours in Europe. Combining his two passions, he opened a piano teaching studio that gradually morphed into his travel business in Edmonds, Washington, his hometown.

Today, his company employs 80 people and thousands of his devotees swear by his guidebooks and tours. Steves is also an outspoken advocate for drug policy reform, (he’s a co-sponsor of Initiative 502, which will legalize, tax and regulate marijuana in Washington State if victorious in the upcoming election) and thinks that Americans need to take more time off, even though he admits that he works all the time. We talked to him about Iran, unrest in the Middle East, his passion for Europe, and the importance of travel as a political act.

As we speak, there are protests all around the Muslim World over a film that denigrates Islam. Just as Americans don’t understand them, they can’t understand that this film doesn’t represent us, right?

It’s so clear. That’s why I’m on a mission. If I’m going to be able to contribute anything, it’s enabling and inspiring Americans to travel so that makes it tougher for other governments to demonize us, and it makes it harder for our government to demonize them. When you travel, it works both ways.

After someone has met an American in person, it might be a little easier for him or her to put a ridiculous video they saw on YouTube in context?

They’ll have a better understanding of who we are and they’ll be less likely to think our whole country is blaspheming their prophet. Christians have a little more of a sense of humor with these things but I believe we have to respect people’s sensitivities and cut them a little slack. It’s much, much deeper than them being angry about a video though. They don’t want their culture to be hijacked by aggressive Western values.

A woman in Iran came up to me and said, ‘We’re united, we’re strong and we just don’t want our little girls to be raised like Brittney Spears.”

This woman is scared to death that we’ll take over their country – to protect Israel or get access to their oil or whatever – and then we’d impose on them our values. If we all traveled, they’d have more understanding of us and we’d have more understanding of them.

Rick Steves in IranWas there any backlash for visiting Iran, a country that many Americans still regard as an enemy?

I thought I would get more but of all the edgy projects I’ve done it’s been one of the most positively received. We worked hard to do it without an agenda. There’s a small element in our country that says, ‘when you humanize them, you make our enemy more likeable, therefore you are evil.’ But I can’t consider the objections of people like that.

Do you think that you’ve have contributed to informing Americans that Iranians don’t hate America?

I feel it’s been one of the most productive things I’ve done. I’m just one person though and we’re just one small production company. I feel like we were ahead of the curve – our timing was right. The State Department gave me the Citizen Diplomat of the Year Award after that and I got a Lutheran Activist of the Year Award too. The show aired in every market in the U.S. many times, so for me that was very exciting.

If I produced a show on Iran and only people who are progressive and want to understand Iranians and appreciate their culture watched it, I wouldn’t have accomplished much. I wanted to produce a show that people who were predisposed to be angry with Iran and not want to better understand the people who put Ahmadinejad in power would watch so they would understand that it’s a more complicated reality than what they’d learned watching the Hostage Crisis on Nightline with Ted Koppel.

Three years later, though, there’s still a lot of sabre rattling and talk of bombing Iran. But once you’ve traveled to a country and made friends with people there, it’s a lot harder to talk about dropping bombs on them isn’t it?

Of course it is. A lot of Americans are angry at Libya for killing our Ambassador. Well, Libya didn’t kill our Ambassador – a bunch of loose cannons did. A traveler has a more sophisticated understanding of these things. It saddens me to see angry and destructive rhetoric coming out of Iran, and there are times when I consider that and think, ‘well, why did I help those people?’ But I know that Iranian people are in a difficult situation and they’re generally good people and there are complicated forces at work there that might make less sophisticated Americans think of them as our enemy.

I just thought that if more people would travel there, that would be really constructive. Unfortunately, not many Americans will travel there, but I can give them the vicarious travel experience.

Can you recommend Iran to Americans?

It’s like traveling in the Soviet Union during the Cold War. They want tourism – it brings in money. They think it helps people understand them better, but they don’t want people running around unescorted, so in order to get a visa you have to have a guide and your hotels arranged.

Given that, it’s wide open for tourism and it’s not that dicey. A lot of Europeans really enjoy going there; it’s a wonderful destination, as far as the culture, the food and the people go.

iran What’s the best payoff about visiting Iran?

If you’ve been to Iran, then every time you see it on TV, you know what’s not in the frame of the camera. It’s very easy from the news broadcaster’s point of view to zoom in on the intense stuff. If it bleeds, it leads, and if they’re shaking their fists at us on TV, it seems like the whole country is shaking their fists at us.

You’ve written in the past about trying to understand the grievances of terrorists and other evildoers. Some regard that as treason, right?

If your big motivation is national security and your approach is ‘shoot first, ask questions later, it’s my way or the highway,’ and unilateralism and exceptionalism and all that stuff, (not understanding the enemy) is the worst thing you could do for national security.

I really think it’s a pragmatic thing to try to understand what motivates people. That’s not justifying or excusing what they did, that’s just trying to make sure it doesn’t happen again. There are a billion Muslims in the world and a billion Christians. One thousand angry Muslims have breeched our consulates. OK, let’s figure that out, but it doesn’t mean we have to lose hope and all go crazy.

What other countries that we don’t have diplomatic relations with would you like to visit? Perhaps North Korea?

No, I don’t want to go to North Korea. My personal challenge would be to go to Palestine. I floated the idea of trying to do a show where we give Americans a better understanding of the roots of the Palestinian situation, but I think it would be even more of a challenge than doing the Iran show.

Why?

I think many Americans actually don’t want to learn more about the roots of the Israeli-Palestinian problem because it might threaten their deep-seeded feelings and beliefs about it. I think it would be very complicated to do a show that gives people a better empathy for the struggles of the Palestinian people without pissing off a lot of people at the same time.

I wrote an article proposing that the best thing we could do for Israel’s national security is to give Palestine more dignity and fairness and people were really, really upset with that. I’m sympathetic to the situation Israel is in, but if we could help Palestine, we’d be giving Israel more security. It seems so obvious. But people just don’t want to go there. It would be a fun challenge to try making a ‘let’s humanize Palestine’ TV documentary though and I think I probably will in the next few years.

Your name is synonymous with Europe, but it seems as though you also want to turn people on to other destinations around the globe?

My favorite country is India but I’ve decided that my beat is Europe. I see Europe as the wading pool for world exploration for Americans. If I can just help inspire and equip Americans to go to Portugal rather than Orlando again, to Morocco rather than Vegas again, to go to Turkey and suck on a hookah, and come home with a broader perspective, that’s a huge accomplishment. And that’s my mission.

Europe is a gateway to the rest of the world for Americans?

Right, then it’s, ‘let’s go to Thailand or Sri Lanka.’ Europe is the (first) big challenge. It’s amazing how many Americans are afraid to go to France because they don’t like us, or Portugal because it’s dirty, or Spain, because there are gypsies. Then you get there and realize, ‘hey, I had a great time and it didn’t cost that much and the world’s a big place, let’s go to Colombia.’

Our country is becoming less and less European and these days being called “Eurocentric” is a real insult. Is there anything wrong with being a Europhile?

I am proudly a Europhile and think anyone who is “anti-European” is driven by ethnocentrism and fear and naivety. You certainly don’t need to embrace European ideas or lifestyle, but to be anti-European is like being anti-culture or anti-broccoli.

istanbul in black and whiteI’ve heard you say that you like Bulgaria. What are some other under-the-radar spots you recommend in Europe?

I love Eastern Turkey, or anywhere in Turkey. Americans go to Istanbul, but they only see 5 percent of the city. Just take a bus to a far fringe of the city and spend a half-day wandering around.

I was just in Hamburg, Germany, and there are no Americans there. It’s really fun to go to cities that aren’t exotic but that Americans aren’t that interested in.

We were in the Greek isles this summer and there are lots of Americans in Santorini but essentially none in Syros, Samos, Patmos, Kos, and a host of other terrific Greek islands. How do we all end up in the same places, is it our guidebooks?

To me, Greece is the most touristed but least explored country. In Greece, some islands are touristy and they have lots of Europeans and multi-language menus and fun, fruity drinks and discos and others are pretty rustic and have just enough commerce to get you a Greek salad and some calamari, and the few tourists around at night are hanging out playing backgammon with the locals.

That really is a very rewarding slice of an otherwise touristy country. It’s not that tough – almost anywhere as a traveler – to make a left turn instead of going right as the guidebooks tell you and have a real experience.

So how do you encourage your readers to take your advice but also do their own thing?

In the introductory chapter to my guidebook “Europe Through the Back Door,” where I share my 40 favorite discoveries, I make the point that these are examples – don’t just march to these places, but let these places inspire you to find your own.

Having said that, Americans like to be spoon-fed, so that’s why a lot of people take the book and go exactly where I recommend, and that’s not all bad. But I always weave into my writing encouragement for people to go on their own cultural scavenger hunt. I’m not going to tell you to turn left at the fountain.

Travelers are gravitating away from guidebooks and toward user generated travel advice from Trip Advisor and a host of other sites. Has this dynamic changed the travel industry?

If you’re a restaurant or a hotel it’s dramatic. They’re brutalized by the power of sites like Trip Advisor. As a guidebook writer, I’m not threatened by this stuff. There are more than enough people out there who want information designed by a real traveler that has no agenda.

Internet sites that gather and share other peoples’ experiences are a real power though; there are a lot of people that design their whole trip around Trip Advisor. I had never visited Trip Advisor until about three months ago. It’s an impressive pile of information but I’ve been sifting through reader feedback for twenty years, so, while some of it is excellent and really helpful, I know how worthless most of it can be.

Rick Steves in SalzburgWhat’s your travel schedule like?

For the last twenty years I’ve been in a simple, clear rut. I spend four months in Europe – April and May in the Mediterranean, and then I go home in June. Then I go back for July and August north of the Alps. For 25 years, I was a tour guide but for the last ten years or so, I haven’t been leading tours. I dedicate my time to researching guidebooks and producing TV shows. This year I went to Leipzig, Wittenberg, Erfurt, and Hamburg for the first time and revisited lots of other places I’ve been writing about for decades. I spend two-thirds of my time researching guidebooks and one-third producing TV shows.

For me, the challenge is, do I want to find new frontiers for tourism or do I want to make sure that the places where most of the travelers go are well covered? It’s a tough call, because I’d like to go to the Ukraine, I’d like to go to Eastern Europe or do more in Northern Europe.

I can write a great self-guided tour for Paris or Florence or Vienna, and piles of people will use that. Or I can work really hard to get great information on the Camino de Santiago, the pilgrim’s trail across Northern Spain, but almost no one will use it. So I’m in a quandary. I’m supposed to be Mr. Back Door, going to places that are less popular, but where I can contribute the most is in places like Rome, Munich or Salzburg.

Are you too American to want to live in Europe full time, but too European to be content in the U.S. all year?

I would only live in the U.S.A. I really feel at home here. I am much more American than European even though I enjoy my work/mission of sharing a European perspective with Americans.

I understand that your son, Andy, is following in your footsteps with his own travel company?

While we took him to Europe every year of his life, I didn’t think he was destined to get into tour guiding and travel teaching. Travel didn’t seem to turn him on. But after he graduated from Notre Dame, he started his own tour business designing wonderful €200 three-day weekends for young Americans studying abroad. Now, through his company, Weekend Student Adventures, Andy’s taking hundreds of students on great tours in Europe’s top six cities.

He’s 25, promotes his business by giving free talks to universities anywhere he can and his tours are filled mostly with adventurous young women. He loves his work – just like me when I was that age. So the answer is yes. He’s over there now as I speak and I am really proud of him.

Where do you travel strictly for pleasure?

I like my work so much I don’t really need a vacation. I love to travel. I can work for 50 12-hour days in a row in Europe, and come home feeling younger and more energized than when I left.

What do you find most gratifying about your job?

I’m like a lifelong student. I love to learn. I have a European history degree. I like to connect good people with good entrepreneurs, and mom and pop kind of places in Europe. To help little businesses in Europe that deserve to thrive. I like to challenge Americans to get out of their comfort zones.

I wrote a book, “Travel as a Political Act.” I have enjoyed a huge new dimension to my work since 9/11. I think the role of a travel writer is to be the medieval jester. To get out there and find out what’s going on outside the castle, and come home and tell people what it’s all about. If I can inspire and equip people to do that, that’ll help America fit more comfortably on this ever-smaller planet.

My first guidebook, “Europe Through the Back Door” is in its 32nd year now, and I’m doing essentially the same thing I did way back then. And I’m thankful I’m not burning out. With so many great workmates to collaborate with and so much new technology to amplify our teaching, it’s more fun than ever. As long as I’m physically able to do this, I can’t stop.

[Photos courtesy of Rick Steves, seier and seier and Atilla 1000 on Flickr]