A Brief History of Georgia

  • Georgia has a long history. During the classical era it was divided into two main kingdoms, Colchis, in the east and Iberia, to the west. This is exciting. Colchis was where Jason ventured, with his Argonauts, to fetch the Golden Fleece. Apparently, fleeces were used to sift gold dust from rivers at that time. The people here were known as "Gurj". They were devotees of St George. Theory has it that the crusaders made the connection and named the country Georgia. The flag definitely represents St George too.
  • Georgie emerged from the World Wars, as a Soviet republic, and then an independent republic, under Soviet style leadership. President Eduard Shevardnadze was ousted in 2003, in the (bloodless) so called Rose Revolution. Since then Georgia has strongly pursued a pro-Western foreign policy, aimed at membership of NATO and integration into the European Union. Unsurprisingly, this led to worsening relations with Russia and, at one point, a brief war. It's all peaceful now, I hope.

What Continent Does Georgia Belong To?

  • Georgia is positioned between both Asia and Europe, but is often considered to be more European in its politics.

Facts and Factoids

  • Georgia on my Mind, though not the American state, which is what Google overwhelmingly throws at you, if you type Georgia into the search engine. But the country of Georgia sits right at the intersection of Eastern Europe and Western Asia. It is a part of the Caucasus region, bounded to the west by the Black Sea. Debatably - in Europe. In Asia, if you count the Caucasus as the boundary. Ask the Georgians? They want to be European. Well, the ones in capital, Tbilisi, do.
  • The Georgians don't call their country Georgia - that's the western name - see above. They call their country Sakartvelo.
  • Joseph Stalin was born here and there are a multiplicity of portraits of him around. The people aren't sure whether to be proud or ashamed.
  • This is a religious country. Most of the people say they belong to the Orthodox Church of Armenia. And there are plenty of churches.
  • The Georgian language is very different. Georgians have their own alphabet, possibly (like the Armenian one) based on the Ethiopian. Mama means daddy and dadi means mummy. (Honestly.)

What To See in Georgia?

Read about my train trip here.

NomadMania

I’m Over the Moon (I never thought I would actually utilise this overdone idiom, but in this case it’s almost true), as I’ve been asked to tour Nagorno Karabakh this week. In fact, it’s doubly exciting. My invitation has come from Harry Mitsidis, arguably the best travelled person in the world, and founder of NomadMania, the website that serves the most well-travelled folk in the world. To my mind, this is elite company. And Nagorno Karabakh is, currently, a decidedly off limits travel destination. No-one is allowed in, except the military, supply vehicles and construction workers.

Day 1 - Baku - Briefings and Celebrations

So, I’ve travelled via Istanbul and now I'm back in the plate glass and steel of Baku, the oil backed capital of Azerbaijan. Twenty five travellers (including me), mostly bloggers and You-tubers are converging on the Sunday Hotel in the labyrinthine old town, which my taxi driver can't find, without half an hours' worth of conversations with locals.

They all look so energetic and fit (in both senses of the word). Tall, blond Viking Gustav (@gus1thego), from Denmark has a following of nearly a quarter of a million on You-tube. There are only five women, including me. Very Hungry Nomads, Rach and Marty, who have done one less country (187) and have a following of 20,000, Milana, who manages the NomadMania office from Warsaw, and Hungarian Ildiko, who has visited every country in the world. I’m in awe.

Aygun and The Birthday of a Lifetime

First off, a welcome dinner and trip briefing in a Baku restaurant. The food keeps coming and coming. Mezze with salads and a variety of breads, roast salmon with plaited potatoes, tender liver and succulent kebabs, barbecued  lamb. And my favourite, crispy rice pots with apricots and sweet chestnuts.

Perhaps more importantly, it’s Harry’s fiftieth birthday (or it was yesterday). The Nomads have created a video wishing him well. Naturally, some far flung areas of the world are represented. Harry is visibly touched and grateful. But the celebrations don’t end there, or with the sticky chocolate cake decorated with flares and the NomadMania logo. Harry has, aspirationally, requested that Aygun attends to provide the entertainment. And, to his astonishment, she does.

Aygun Kazimova

Wikipedia says that Aygun Kazimova is a well known singer in Azerbaijan, Turkey and Russia. (Actually, I’m told, she is the most famous and successful female singer in Azerbaijan). She’s also an actor and songwriter and has dueted with Snoop Dogg. Whatever, she is a consummate professional, interacting wholeheartedly with her audience. The singing is fabulous and everyone is soon dancing and partying. Harry is, literally, having the time of his life.

Back to the hotel at midnight.

Day 2 – Come in Rubber Duck

We convene at 5.45 in the morning. A convoy of 11 land cruisers, headed by a police car, complete with blue flashing warning lights. There’s an accompanying clicking of amber indicators to indicate our importance to bemused motorists, as we stream out of Baku, parallel to the Caspian Sea and through the plain of oil fields to the south. Most of the drivers take no notice, though one or two tuck in between us, sneakily taking advantage of our clear road.

Then west and into Karabakh. President Aliyev has already built a new six-lane 100-kilometre highway, from Fizuli (where there’s a spanking brand new international airport) part-way to the town of Shusha. Then we wind up into the mountains. It’s immediately apparent that this a hauntingly beautiful land. Hilltops laced with delicate icing sugar coated trees, giving way to snow blanketed slopes.

The Nagorno Karabakh Conflict

The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is the longest-running in post-Soviet Eurasia, dating back over thirty years. This is a very brief summary of my online reading. I don’t have the knowledge, or the temerity, to make judgements about who is/has been in the wrong. Both sides concerned, Karabakh (supported by Armenia) and Azerbaijan, have been criticised at times, with reports of ethnic cleansing, genocide and cultural desecration. There’s seldom a real winner when it comes to war.

History of the Nagorno Karabakh Conflict

For centuries, different powers in the region - both Christian and Muslim - have vied for control of Karabakh, which lies in a strategically important area, the Lesser Caucasus Mountains.

Karabakh was located in modern day Azerbaijan, which was absorbed into the Soviet Union when it formed in the 1920s. In 1988, the ethnic Armenians living in Nagorno-Karabakh, held a referendum and demanded the transfer of what was then the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (NKAO) from Soviet Azerbaijan to Armenia. The situation became more tense, as the Soviet Union collapsed, leading to outright war between the inhabitants of Karabakh and the newly independent Azerbaijan.

When the fighting ceased, in 1994, Nagorno- Karabakh and seven adjacent districts, in Azerbaijan, were wholly or partially controlled by Armenian forces. Nagorno-Karabakh remained part of Azerbaijan, but governed by a separatist, self-declared republic, run by ethnic Armenians, who called it Artsakh, and were backed by the Armenian government. More than a million people, on both sides, had been forced from their homes.

The ceasefire was not an easy one. It was punctuated by deadly incidents, incursions and drone strikes. Most notably, four days of intense fighting took place in April 2016, killing hundreds on both sides. Fully-fledged war resumed in September 2020. This time, for the most part, the Azeri forces prevailed. Though not before over 7,000 military and about 170 civilians were killed and many more wounded.

Geopolitics

Geopolitics, as is so often the case, have continued to play their part. Turkey has historically poor relations with Armenia and has supported Azerbaijan throughout. Russia has ostensibly supported Armenia, but also maintained an amicable partnership with Azerbaijan. And it was Russia, as before, that brokered the current ceasefire. It has been hailed as an end to the conflict, but it remains an uneasy one.

The Nagorno Karabakh Ceasefire

It was agreed that Azerbaijan should regain control over the seven districts (originally part of Azerbaijan) that Armenian forces had held since the previous war. Azerbaijan has also been handed back a substantial part of Nagorno-Karabakh itself. A force of almost 2,000 Russian peacekeepers has been deployed to both Karabakh and the Lachin Corridor, between Karabakh and Armenia, for an initial five years, with the possibility of renewal.

Potentially, this provides the opportunity for at least half a million Azerbaijanis to return home, after being displaced for more than twenty-five years. More than 30,000  Armenians have been forced to flee from their homes in the one-third of Nagorno Karabakh itself, (including the town of Shusha), which has now been returned to Azeri control.

That's the background. Emotions are still riding high on both sides. There are ongoing arguments over captives still held and dead bodies not returned. Both parties continue to revisit the horrors of the war, atrocities and devastation via various forms of media. And here I am in Shusha, to see for myself.

Shusha

Shusha nestles at over 1500 metres. Between May 1992 and November 2020, Shusha was under the de facto control of Artsakh and administered as the centre of its Shushi Province. It is now a bleak, almost ghost town. The displaced peoples of the war have left devastation behind. Ruined buildings, poking through the trees, like mini Roman amphitheatres. We are told that, here and elsewhere, ejected Armenians looted the houses, removed the roofs and doors and sold them. In some areas, the buildings have been levelled.

Ownership of the town of Shusha has been hugely significant, as it has religious, cultural and strategic importance for both groups. It is usually considered to be the cradle of Azerbaijani culture- especially music and poetry. The old fortress walls and gate remain, but elsewhere busts are riddled with bullet holes. Bart, from the Netherlands (@offbeattravelling) points out the indentations. The cultural significance of Shusha is reinforced by a visit to the home of Murtuza Bulbul, a famous Azerbaijani and Soviet opera tenor.

 Renowned Iranian photographer Reza gives a fascinating presentation, which explains how the main square in Shusha once looked. The Azeris complain bitterly about the destruction of their cultural hall and damage to mosques. These are boarded off, for renovation. However, Shusha also contains several Armenian Apostolic churches, and there are concerns that these, in their turn, have also been desecrated.

The Media

It transpires that our convoy is larger than I had imagined. We’re being accompanied by a media bus and journalists, representing  all the major Azeri TV channels. We’ve hardly alighted from our 4WDs before being marched off to answer questions about our impressions of Shusha. I repeat my speech three times in front of different microphones. I hardly know what to say. I’ve only been here five minutes and I don’t feel fully informed. The vloggers are more adept. They've leapt out, waving their cellphones. It's Selfie Central.

Agdam

Back in the land cruisers, we gain further height and the carpets of snow thicken. But it’s already been a long day.  Stops by the roadside and more interviews consume the hours. There's a longer halt at Hunot Gorge, where we peer over the edge, alongside camouflaged sentries. It’s dusk when we arrive at Agdam and our city tour has to be abandoned. We gather at the under renovation mosque, the only building left standing in the town, which was once home to 30,000. Another explanation from Reza. He has horrifying and exceptionally moving images of shocked civilians and the Armenian atrocities.

This is what Wikipedia has to say about Agdam:

'HRW (Human Rights Watch) considered these actions serious violations of the rules of war, but noted that given the tit-for-tat nature of the conflict, it considered the actions of Agdam Armenian forces a revenge for the Azeri destruction of Mardakert, which, according to Thomas Goltz, who was in Mardakert in September 1992, became a "a pile of rubble", noting "more intimate detritus of destroyed private lives: pots and pans, suitcases leaking sullied clothes, crushed baby strollers and even family portraits, still in shattered frames'.

Also:

BBC journalist Roy Parsons reported that "every single Azeri house in the town was blown up to discourage return" as during the war, the Azeris used Agdam as a base from which to shell Karabakh and the Armenians could not trust them not to do it again.

Bed for the night is in a cottage, in the grounds of a hotel, another three hours further on, in Toghana. We arrive for dinner at 10.15. Another update and I’m trying to sleep, by just after midnight. It’s not easy. I don’t think the room has been occupied for many weeks and the bedding is icy cold. Milana and boyfriend Daniel, ensconced in the master bedroom next door, have kindly given me the only fan heater in the building. It’s waging a futile battle against the draughts.

Day 3 Kalbajar, Nagorno Karabakh

Today, into Karabakh proper and the district of Kalbajar. An ongoing procession of ruins. And a mixture of frustration and delight. Long stops whilst vehicles are refuelled - they have to summon a tanker and wait in line, a flat tyre (from shrapnel it’s alleged) and the requirements (and whims) of security. The scenery, however, as we chug up to the top of a pass, is spectacular. We've climbed to a height of  3350 metres, the temperature an eye watering minus 12 and a switchback of hairpin bends down the other side. The Murov Mountains are the highest in the Caucasus.

Through an automobile tunnel hewn out of the rock. No concessions to artistic merit here. And a military camp stop for tea in the refectory. We queue up to use the bathroom in some poor soldier's room . I don't think he's been asked. The troops are very nervous of the cameras and slide out of sight if they see one. Harry reminds us, firmly, that we must not publish images that enable servicemen to be recognised. It's a shame. They have very impressive Dr Zhivago style fur hats. Some of the drivers oblige by lining up for a picture instead.

And another delight: gurgling hot springs in a river valley at Istisu. This was, historically, a resort town, and during the Soviet period, it attracted people from all over the USSR to be treated at the mineral-springs baths. There were even plans to bottle the water. It's a welcome steaming fountain ringed by emerald patterned rocks, a flattened dinosaur. (The picture of me here was taken by Boris Kester @boris_traveladventures - he's visited every country in the world. And thank you Boris, for the editing.)

The Lachin Corridor

And into the Lachin Corridor where, as agreed in the peace settlement, the Russians preside over a long wide valley. Russian and Azeri flags flutter, there are tanks and personnel carriers under camouflage netting. and we are (even more strongly) forbidden to take photographs. Straight faced and grave, the Russian soldiers search our bags and cars thoroughly. It’s a long interlude. Alongside the road, scarlet signs warn of mines. And I desperately want to go to the toilet. Boris and Max, from Vienna (@maxlayerer, scarf artistically draped round his head), do the honours and bravely check the (too) steep scrub is safe.

There are mixed views on the Russian peace keeping mission. After the 2020 war, the front line has become longer and more volatile than before. Opposing military positions are separated from one another by only 30 -100 metres. So, this is an important job. Russia of course, enjoys this foot hold. However, its justification relies on a well-functioning territory, with a large civilian population. At the moment, what remains of Karabakh in Armenian hands struggles for economic viability, as most of its routes to Armenia have disappeared.

The Lachin Corridor (five kilometres wide) currently provides the only connection between Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia - we cross the dusty road to Armenia, wiggling away into the distance. It’s an impressive valley drive and there are caves on the further side. My driver politely forbids me, still, from taking any pictures. We are being tailed by a Russian vehicle, flag waving as the convoy moves through their jurisdiction. Every two minutes tense Russian guards at different checkpoints count the number of cars and mark us all present on their forms.

There are unconfirmed reports that Moscow is considering giving the Karabakh Armenians Russian passports, as it has, for example, to the residents of Transnistria, in Moldova.

Toghana

Its late again, by the time we arrive at our lodging. The lights of Iran are twinkling in the distance. Tonight, it’s the military barracks at Toghana. It takes half an hour to find it. The police car obviously doesn’t have GPS here and it’s comic watching 11 cars reverse and do U turns several times in unison.  Dinner is at 10.45.

I’ve done well with room allocations; the barracks is surprisingly modern and warm. I’m sharing with just  one Azeri lady, a travel agent. Though she does set her alarm for five a.m.

Day 4 Redeveloping Nagorno Karabakh

As dawn breaks, we’re being interviewed by journalists once again. Parked above a newly built 'smart city' we were supposed to see yesterday. Smart villages are intended to introduce agriculture based on 'modern technologies and joint management and control,' but, the concept goes beyond simply farming methods. It also includes ‘smart’ street lighting, cold- and heat-resistant homes, management of household waste, the installation of hydro and solar power stations and biogas energy. The idea has had a mixed reaction. There are concerns around ownership and corruption. And  these urban-type settlements, may not be popular with returnees who hanker for their old houses.

Down here, in the south, east of the Zangezur mountains, the Azeris and Turks are most excited about the opening of the so called Zangezur Corridor. Road and rail links will establish a direct link between Azerbaijan and the Azeri enclave of Nakchivan, currently divided by Armenian land. The possibilities of enhanced links with Turkey and with Europe beckon.

We stop on the newly built railway line for a final exposition from Reza, who is pursued along the track by his drone.

Bilasuvar

Exiting Karabakh, finally, we halt at Bilasuvar, a small Azeri town. There’s a square, with a monument to Heydar Aliyev, who’s often known as the 'father of the Azeri nation’. He’s also the father of the current president, Ilham Aliyev.

This is what it’s like to be a celebrity. I’ve been doing some royal family style waving as we have proceeded and Azeri guards have all saluted to acknowledge us, as we speed past. Here, most of the town comes to halt. Small boys giggle excitedly and stare as they pose with Gustav. The mayor emerges from the municipal buildings to greet us, his eyes widening, as he realises that we are those people who have been on the TV news this week. We’re all invited to welcome refreshments in a café on the edge of the square.

The Way Forward for Nagorno Karabakh –  A Meeting With Hikmat Hajiyev.

Back in Baku. In the late afternoon, a meeting with Hikmat Hajiyev, the high profile Assistant of the President of the Republic of Azerbaijan and Head of the Foreign Policy Affairs Department of the Presidential Administration. This is what appears on Twitter:

'Very pleased to meet with NomadMania travellers and bloggers group who visited the all liberated territories within 3 days long intense schedule. We talked about post-conflict developments in the South Caucasus, Azerbaijan's agenda of peace and prospects of normalization with Armenia'

For my part, I’m happy to hear talk about ways forward, rather than dwelling on the past. Mr. Hajiyev brings up the challenges of reconstruction and returning Azeris comfortably and safely, 'in a dignified manner'. The government are building on a previous official seventy-two-page programme from 2008, entitled “Big Recovery” which makes it clear how big the challenge is. It documents plans to rebuild 751 settlements over 11,500 square kilometres and resettle up to 570,000 people. Extensive refurbishment of utilities, and reconstruction is needed before former residents can return, something that could take several years. Mr Hajiyev mentions employment, education and universities which provide courses that focus on the needs of the area. (Like oil studies in Texas.). There is mineral wealth in Karabakh and opportunities for green energy. Plans also include the building of more smart cities.

Mines are a huge issue. There are millions of them and maps are unreliable. Energy and other resources are problematic. The capital of Artsakh, Stepanakert (which Azerbaijanis call Khankendi) and Shusha, which used to rely on one another for water and electricity, are now in rival hands. The biggest challenge, however, is probably finance. Azerbaijan is in a difficult economic climate, with  falling oil production and the global pandemic. The conflict has also weakened Nagorno Karabakh’s economy.

Nevertheless, Mr Hajiyev is upbeat, as he addresses concerns that Azeris may not wish to return to Karabakh. Displaced peoples have, for nearly thirty years carved out a new urban style existence, which might be comfortable and habituated. Mr Hajiyev believes that the peoples remain attached to their land, even if they have been away some time. Reza joins in: ‘They were displaced against their will and without their possessions, but they took their key’.

Baku Press Conference

These points are reiterated at a press conference in the Trend News Agency building – we are described as ‘famous travellers’ in the ensuing news bulletins. I’m very grateful and feel privileged to have been included in such a trip. We fervently hope that both sides can put the horrors of the war behind them and move on. There are challenging, but huge possibilities and opening up, internationally, both physically and diplomatically, will hopefully lead to the necessary support required.

'When we visit these regions in 10 years, we hope to see big hotels, smart villages, and developed economic spaces. I expect Karabakh to become a new bridge between Azerbaijan and Europe. More people should visit and discover Azerbaijan,' says Harry.

Read more about Azerbaijan here.

Azerbaijan - Facts and Factoids

  • Azerbaijan is bounded by the Caspian Sea, to the east; and the Greater Caucasus mountain range to the north. Indeed, 40% of the country is mountainous, but there are extensive plains at the country's centre.
  • The name Azerbaijan is thought to come from the Persian, meaning Land of Fire. It's an apt name. The first known fireplace in human history, ( 700,000 to 500,000 years old), was discovered here, in the Azikh Cave. They’ve been leftover from the nation’s Zoroastrian days when fire worship was common. In addition, Azerbaijan is known for its combustible natural resources, oil and gas. Gases at the bottom of volcanoes like Yanur Dag have burned for many years.
  • Azerbaijan is home to half of the world’s population of mud volcanoes, over 400 in fact.
  • The national animal of Azerbaijan is the Karabakh Horse. They have been bred for many hundreds of years, but are now threatened with extinction as Azeris like to eat horse meat.

What Continent Does Azerbaijan Belong To?

  • Azerbaijan is positioned between both Asia and Europe, but is often considered to be more European in its politics.

A Brief History of Azerbaijan

  • Azerbaijan came into being as an independent country in 1918 after the collapse of the Russian empire. before that the peoples of this region were known as Caucasian Turks.
  • It was a short lived existence. The Soviet Union invaded in 1920 and Azerbaijan was part of the USSR, until the country declared independence in 1991.
  • Previously, the area now known as Azerbaijan was conquered by the Arabs in 642 AD. who converted the people to Islam.
  • After several hundred years, the Arab empire fell and the Mongols invaded.
  • Azerbaijan had a strategic location because of its ports on the Caspian Sea and the trade routes between Asia, the Middle East, and Europe. As a result, it was fought over by major empires including the Ottomans, Russia, and the Persians. The area ended up under Persian rule, but in 1828, the Russians and the Persians agreed to divide the area up between them.

What to See in Azerbaijan?

The mountains are stunning, there're the volcanoes (and fire) and some ancient history thrown in. Hop across to Nakchivan, a landlocked exclave.

Baku, the capital is a must. And if you can't get to Nagorno Karabakh, read about the trip I was lucky enough to make here.

Adelaide

Petra has flown in to join me in Adelaide where I've arrived from Tasmania. I have to get myself up to Darwin for my flight to East Timor and the Ghan seemed the obvious way to do it. The centre of Adelaide is very different to my first trip thirty years ago. It’s gone high rise and modern.

Why is the Ghan called the Ghan?

Ghan is short for Afghan. The original Adelaide to Darwin train was called the Afghan Express, because of the Asian cameleers who supported the engineering endeavour. They were collectively known as Afghans, even though many came from Pakistan, Persia and India. The first part of the railway, from Port Augusta, near Adelaide, was begun in 1878, but not extended to Alice Springs until 1926. The extension through to Darwin didn't begin until this century, facilitating trade links to Darwin and thus Asia and opening up tourism opportunities.

Today’s train is (I imagine) very different from the original. It runs weekly in each direction and we have extremely well fitted out single cabins, in what looks like an almost new carriage. The storage is cunningly contrived to make good use of every inch of very compact space. It’s certainly infinitely superior to the offerings on Amtrak. So is the food - and there’s unlimited access to soft drinks and alcohol. Which probably explains why the ticket is so expensive.

Our scheduled travelling time, including excursions, is 53 hours 15 minutes. And we are travelling 1,851 miles on what is now described as one of the world's great passenger trains.

The Ghan Across Southern Territory

The train rolls peacefully along, past wind farms, salt pans and the Flinders Ranges. As with Amtrak, however, there are plenty of halts in railway sidings.

It’s the outback sunrise experience this morning: bonfires, bacon and egg sliders and a view of the sun, a huge fiery ball bursting over the low bush.

From then on it's red dirt and low green terrain. The train manager attempts to make things more exciting. 'The Northern Territory sign is ahead, get your cameras ready'. It’s so unprepossessing I almost miss it. The iron man sculpture that is promoted as the next attraction is even more diminutive. But the outback scenery, the squat acacia and the quavery ghost gums more aesthetically pleasing than the man made art, is a relaxing backdrop. It’s a good chance to recharge batteries (mine this time) and chat to fellow passengers. These are nearly all retired Aussies, (think Norfolk Island) for the most part extremely sociable. Australia is definitely one of the friendliest countries in the world.

Alice Springs

I was in Alice Springs thirty years ago too. I’ve retained a soft spot for the name ever since reading Nevil Shute’s novel, when I was eleven. First stop is John Flynn's Grave Historical Reserve. He was a Presbyterian minister who founded the Royal Flying Doctor Service. The site is marked by a boulder stolen from an aboriginal sacred site.

This afternoon, I’m heading out to the McDonnell Ranges for a walk at Simpsons Gap. Long pants and covered shoes are obligatory. They don’t want the punters getting bitten by snakes. The sky is azure, the ridges fiery red, the dusky rock wallabies peer down at us from the heights and the bus driver plays a didgeridoo.

Nitmiluk Gorge (Katherine Gorge)

One of the very elderly passengers has gone AWOL this morning. The crew are walking through the winding corridors calling out ’Donald?’ and looking anxious. He can’t have got off. All the doors are locked.

The landscape is now golden rather than red. There are more trees, though they’re spindly and interspersed with minaret-like termite mounds. Today’s excursion takes us to Katherine Gorge, on the edge of Kakadu Park, where we embark on two cruises on a pair of the thirteen gorges, walking between the different boats. The scenery here is splendid, with wonderful reflections on the still waters of the Katherine River, especially the pools between the gorges. The escarpment towers above us and (relatively) friendly freshwater crocodiles bask on rocks. Any of the much less amenable salties that are discovered are transported to reserves. (They put out red plastic decoys and look for teeth marks.)

One of the attendants tells me that Donald was discovered in the platinum class area. The more affluent amongst us have a separate dining car, which we thought was locked off, (we couldn’t get in) but Donald managed to find his way through and was hogging a table and enjoying a superior breakfast.

The Ghan is undoubtedly a comfortable train, but it’s more of an excursion experience than a train ride. We seem to have slept through most of the terrain. Perhaps there isn’t anything else to see? We're decanted at Darwin and I prepare for my early flight to East Timor.

Ashgabat Airport

We have a chartered Embraer 190 (about 90 seats) to take 13 of us over the Caspian from Baku to Ashgabat, the capital of Turkmenistan. TC Ted gets his own seat, so he makes 14, and there are three cabin attendants. For lunch we are given a hot pancake with chocolate sauce and canned fruit cocktail. The airport is all white marble, green and gold, with every modern device possible and cascades of automatic escalators and moving walkways. It is eerily absolutely deserted – even more so than the one in Pyongyang. There are machine passport readers and scores of x-ray scanners. Maybe the men on customs duty are bored, but they find something to question in everyone’s case. They are particularly interested in medication, so Doctor Tino gets a hard time, until ennui sets in for them again.

Ashgabat – The Marble City, Turkmenistan

Our hotel is a smaller version of The Sail, in Dubai. We can see it as we come into land, standing proudly isolated outside the city. And as for the city: if other capitals have been space age, this one is in another galaxy. It’s all white marble. I’m going to change my mind about where Kim Jong-un got his inspiration. This place is the UAE, meets Las Vegas, meets Pyongyang. It’s so over the top I’m almost lost for words. Ashgabat was rebuilt in Soviet style in the mid-twentieth century, when it was part of the Soviet Union. Since independence, the resulting monoliths have all been re-clad in marble. Some have had neoclassical pillars added. In a city of just 22square kilometres, there are 543 buildings covered with 4.5 million cubic metres of imported Italian white marble.

Turkmenbashi and Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow

As if that wasn't enough, the city is filled with grand monuments honouring former president Saparmurat Niyazov - or Turkmenbashi. (The name Turkmenbashi means exactly what it suggests, Leader of the Turkmen.) This man was a specialist in building a personality cult. He renamed the city of Krasnovodsk after himself and then set about placing gold statues of his image around Ashgabat. Just as in North Korea, there are statues to commemorate the dead and pictures for the current incumbent. The current president, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, was born sixteen years later and is, officially, no relation. But he looks uncannily like him, as is evident from his many pictures. The opposition party (at least there is one) have dubbed him The Turkmenator. Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow became president in 2007 after winning a non-democratic election (he had been vice-president and then acting president previously);

Wikipedia reports that, 'the country is widely criticized for its poor human rights, its treatment of minorities, press and religious freedoms.'

The Neutrality Monument

There are also gold domes, towers, an enclosed Ferris wheel (unsurprisingly unique in the world), towering pillars, a rocket shaped memorial, a whole line of sports stadia, strings of fountains, parks and a multiplicity of other extravaganza. The highlight is the tripod/rocket shaped Neutrality Monument. (Apparently, Turkmenistan is the first officially neutral country in the world. I will have to check that. What about Switzerland? ) This is all in the new town, which is criss-crossed by three lane highways. The gantries, lamps and traffic lights are white, with a filigree gilt finish and there are videos running on LCD screens (with white and gold frames) at the sides of the road, showing the president and other dignitaries working, and also, bizarrely, fun fairs and other jollity.

Where Are the People in Turkmenistan?

 There are no people around here, other than cleaners, pretending to sweep and wash the stone paths and men on mobile platforms polishing all the numerous lamps that illuminate them. Almost 90% of workers in Turkmenistan are employed by the government. The many elite apartment blocks look empty and another car on the mega highways is an event. Our guide says that the old town is livelier - he lives there - but we haven’t been taken to visit it.

A 5.5 Star Hotel

Like Pyongyang, much seems fake. There is no roaming cell phone signal and little Wi-Fi. All the social media sites are blocked. Our out of town hotel also fits the bill. It's a modern tear drop shaped beacon. At 5.5 stars it’s much more stylish than anything in North Korea, but it’s isolated and is reached using its own deserted three lane highway. There’s no sixteenth or seventeenth floor button in the lift (!) I have a view across the Marble City and there’s an illuminated star encased globe on the next hill, which turns out to be the Happiness Palace, where people get married.

The room is decorated with fancy wood furniture. The bathroom has a heated floor and there’s even a TV at the end of the bath. There are Bulgari toiletries beautifully arranged- all very elegant with glass and marble fittings, shower and separate toilet. And then a tube of Colgate toothpaste and a tooth brush in their original wrappings. Very odd. The service is interesting, the staff look surprised and little put out if you ask them to do anything. At breakfast, there is no-one at the egg station, and when she does return the chef has a hissy fit if she gets more than one order at a time.

Facts and Factoids

  • Turkmenistan has long served as a thoroughfare for other nations and cultures. Merv is one of the oldest oasis-cities in Central Asia, and was once the biggest city in the world. It was also one of the great cities of the Islamic world and an important stop, on the Silk Road.
  • Annexed by the Russian Empire in 1881, Turkmenistan figured prominently in the anti-Bolshevik movement in Central Asia. In 1925, Turkmenistan became a constituent republic of the Soviet Union, the Turkmen Soviet Socialist Republic (Turkmen SSR); it became independent after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.
  • Turkmenistan is nominally an Islamic country and only 30% of the population are practising Muslims, but the women are fully covered, with very long skirts. Before they are married, they sport small skull caps and long plaits. When partnered up, they move on to bright headscarves, tied to make it look as if they have as much hair as possible, Iranian style. (Iran is only just the other side of the mountains). Some of the men wear small skull caps too. They are all very reluctant to have their photographs taken. Elvin says that newly married women are forbidden from speaking to their fathers in law at all. When they have had a baby they may inquire what he wants for dinner.
  • Natural gas is the country’s main export.
  • Most of the country is covered by the Karakum Desert. The population is about six million, the lowest of the Central Asian republics, and Turkmenistan is one of the most sparsely populated nations in Asia.

Nisa

There’s also almost a small traffic jam, in another part of the new city, as we progress to and from the mud remains of the Parthian Fortresses of Nisa. It's mainly two 'tells', but apparently it's the site of one of the earliest and most important cities of the Parthian Empire, a major power from the mid 3rd century BC to the 3rd century AD. The most exciting thing to do here is walk round the mud ramparts for great views of the Kopet Dag mountains and across the flat valley.

Kipchak Mosque

The Kipchak Mosque is also gleaming in the haze. There’s a green roofed village nestling below the peaks, the remnants of old Soviet collective farms. Winter wheat and cotton are major crops, as well some grapes. The guide says the wine isn’t very nice, it’s very sweet.

The huge mosque is built in memory of Turkmenbashi and his mother and is one of the largest mosques in Central Asia. It's adorned with an immense golden cupola 50 meters in diameter and four tall minarets 91 meters high (Turkmenistan gained independence in 1991), Inside are interlocking eight-sided stars from cherry wood and pillars cased in Carrara marble and a huge handwoven carpet.  There's room for 10 000 worshippers inside the mosque, but it usually sits empty, as the mosque is somewhat controversial. It incorporates scripts from the Ruhnama, the former president’s moral guidebook, which are given equality with the Koran. The family mausoleum is alongside, suitably guarded by goose stepping soldiers.

Across Turkmenistan

Then, back to the train, which has crossed the Caspian Sea to reach Turkmenistan on a ferry. It’s the first time, on this journey, that I’ve sat in my cabin and been able to look out in daylight. So far all I’ve seen is acres of scrubby flat desert, a herd of camels grazing and the odd industrial plant, which I assume is for the extraction of natural gas.

Darvaza Gas Crater, Turkmenistan

Gas certainly contributes to the country’s most impressive sight. The Darvaza Gas Crater in the middle of the Karakum Desert has been alight since the early 1970s when a gas rig collapsed, creating a huge hollow. It was lit deliberately to eliminate the leaking poisonous gas. They thought it would take a week to burn out. It’s astonishing in the dark, like a giant cauldron, and we tiptoe round the edge with torches and then, at Tino’s insistence, scramble  up a much too steep hill for the view, tumbling into thorn bushes on the way. There’s definitely no way back out if you fall in, assuming you don’t catch light straight away.

Turkmenistan to Uzbekistan

The showers in our compact cabins are a little annoying, as you have to keep your hand on a knob to maintain the flow of water. It’s not easy to do this and spray yourself holding the showerhead simultaneously. Shane suggests that we should adopt the yoga Tree Pose, standing on one leg and pressing the knob with your knee. I’ve tried it, but it’s not hugely comfortable.

We’re supposed to be over the border in Uzbekistan when we awake, but the train is still sitting at Dashoguz on the Turkmen border. They seem to be changing the engine. Here, there’s a built up area and an insight into the real Turkmenistan. The houses are mainly crumbling clay and stone shacks, though they all have a satellite dish on the roof. There’s an Uzbek flag waving tantalisingly in the distance as we, perplexingly, reverse out of Dashoguz station. We’ve decided the drivers are more used to freight trains as they have not yet mastered the art of braking smoothly. Everything in the carriage topples over as we halt.

I was wrong, that wasn’t the Uzbek flag, it was the Turkmen flag – Dashoguz must have been a terminus and this is the border area. There are soldiers observing alongside the track every 100 metres or so now. Uzbekistan here I come. Farida from the train is re-joining us when we do finally get there. She was refused a visa for Turkmenistan,  no explanation given.

Crossing the Border into Azerbaijan from Georgia

I'm on the Golden Eagle Train travelling from Yerevan to Almaty. except that we weren't allowed to use the train in Armenia as the Azeris wouldn't then allow it into Azerbaijan. The Azeri police have been on the train, confined us to our cabins and taken our pictures and we’ve been allowed into Azerbaijan from Georgia. The train is actually moving properly across country towards Baku now, though I still haven’t been able to see anything out of the window. The rails seem in even worse shape than before and the jolting is erratic and uncomfortable. I’m shaken awake every ten minutes or so.

Baku, Capital of Azerbaijan

Baku isn’t just the capital and largest city of Azerbaijan, it’s the only large city in Azerbaijan. 25% of Azerbaijan’s 8 million people live here. Perhaps more excitingly, it is located 28 metres below sea level, which makes it the lowest lying national capital in the world and also the largest city in the world located below sea level.

The script here in Azerbaijan is very similar to Turkish and their Turkish heritage is very obvious in the Azeri physique. They are solid and swarthy people. Guide Elvin is very patriotic. He boasts happily about the hosting of the Eurovision song contest in 2012, the European ‘Olympic’ games. in 2012, the fourth Islamic Solidarity Games, the European Grand Prix in 2016 and so on.

Baku - Old City

Baku, we’re told, is famed for its medieval walled inner city. Its a labyrinth of narrow one way streets, so complicated that my taxi driver can't find my hotel, when I make a return visit to Baku, It's very chic, tourist orientated, with boutique hotels, teeny cafes with samovars and bijou shops carved from old caravanserai. And it's very restored.

Within the city walls we visit the Palace of the Shirvanshahs, a royal retreat dating to the fifteenth century, and the centuries-old stone Maiden Tower, which dominates the city skyline. They were inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2000.

The Palace of the Shirvanshahs originally served as the Baku fortress stronghold, surrounded by a wall with towers. There are burial-vaults, the shah's mosque with a minaret, Seyid Yahya Bakuvi's mausoleum (the so-called "mausoleum of the dervish"), gates, a reservoir and the remnants of a bath house. The Maiden Tower is satisfyingly shrouded in mystery. It's the emblem of Baku, but no-one is quite sure how old it is or why it was built. It's generally described as twelfth century but some scholars argue that parts of it at least date back to 600 AD.

Martyrs' Lane or Alley of Martyrs, formerly known as Kirov Park, is a memorial (with tombs) dedicated to those killed by the Soviet Army during Black January 1990 and during the First Nagorno-Karabakh War of 1988–1994.

Baku - City of Winds

Outside the old town, money has been lavished on architects, plate glass and steel. The highway from the airport is lined with huge stadia, monuments and mosques. In the city proper, endless arcades with high end shop names decorating the facades, a TV tower, various sleek museums and games/Eurovision song contest venues, shopping malls (one a more complex version of Sydney opera house) and, The Flames. The latter are three towers that dominate the sky line and are appropriately illuminated at night. The whole is perched above grand esplanades that line the Caspian Sea. We’re also told by guide Elvin that Baku means 'City of Winds', so Chicago has a rival. It’s living up to its name today.

According to the Lonely Planet's ranking, Baku is also among the world's top ten destinations for urban nightlife. If you have time and energy. And my prayers have been answered. The Four Seasons Hotel is eminently comfortable. I could fit about six railway cabins into my room and I have a view of the old town and The Flames, in all their glory. What’s more, the bed is huge and doesn’t jolt.

Azerbaijan and Oil

Baku is divided into 48 townships. This includes  the Town of Oil Rocks built on stilts in the Caspian Sea, 60 kilometres away from Baku. We're looking out across, to here, as we drive south-west, out of Baku.  Sangachal, to our left is one of the world's biggest oil and gas terminals. Around us a veritable sea of rigs, derricks, platforms firework like flares and nodding donkeys of all ages, ranging from Victorian, through Soviet to modern day. It’s not the most scenic of outlooks, almost surreal. One of the oil fields featured in James Bond - The World is Not Enough.

More development is planned. The Khazar Islands project is said to be inspired by the man-made islands of Dubai. Ambitious plans, I'm told, are futuristic, including several skyscrapers and the world's tallest tower. But nothing is happening at the moment. Everything was put on hold during the recession in 2015. There’s also a huge ‘debate’ going on over whether the Caspian is a lake or a sea. This affects the apportionment of ownership by the five countries that abut the Caspian, and therefore rights to all the oil and gas.

The oil, of course, is the source of Azerbaijan’s wealth. The most obvious benefit is that it costs astonishingly little to fill up your tank here. Otherwise, Baku is a very expensive city to live in, as it accommodates many well paid oil and gas workers. The view from the landing plane is seashore, lined with wedding cake villas, incongruously nestled in front of the grim brown oilfields. It's a different matter, however, for those who live in rural areas, where the recession has hit the hardest. Up to 50 percent of the population overall are thought to live below the poverty line.

Azerbaijan - The Land of Fire

Next, we discover why Azerbaijani is known as the Land of (Eternal) Fire. The most well-known of Azerbaijan’s volcanoes, is Yanar Dag, also known as ‘Burning Mountain’. True to its name, in turn, a patch at the bottom of the slope on this mountain has been burning for as long as anyone can remember. Sometimes the flames leap up to three metres high. The fire is very welcome in the chill of the wind and cloud. We’re informed it’s natural gas, that's alight. The mountain is right in the centre of the oil fields..

The Ateshgah Temple

Based on Persian and Indian inscriptions, the Ateshgah Temple was used as a Hindu, Sikh, and Zoroastrian place of worship. (Ātash is the Persian word for fire). The pentagonal complex, which has a courtyard surrounded by cells for monks and a tetrapillar-altar in the middle, was built during the 17th and 18th centuries. It was abandoned in the late nineteenth century, probably due to the dwindling of the Indian population in the area. It's surrounded by a castle like wall.

The natural eternal flame went out in 1969, despite five years of praying to the gods for it to return. They now have to pipe in the gas from the city instead.

Gobustan Park

Gobustan Park, also a UNESCO site, is the home of precarious trails, singing rocks and caves housing Stone Age petroglyphs. It has more than 6,000 rock carvings, depicting people, animals, battle-pieces, ritual dances, bullfights, boats with armed oarsmen, warriors with lances in their hands and camel caravans, not to mention the sun and stars. There's' even a shaman, denoted by his hat and an extinct auroch. They date back between 5,000 and 20,000 years. According to Elvin, Azerbaijan is more or less the main home of early man, the first stopping point after emerging from Africa. Passenger Shane dubs it ‘Lucy’s First Truck Stop’.

One more fact I gleaned: The national animal of Azerbaijan is the Karabakh Horse. They have been bred for many hundreds of years, but are now threatened with extinction as Azeris like to eat horse meat.

Mud Volcanoes

Azerbaijan is home to half of the world’s population of mud volcanoes. So, naturally we have petitioned to have them added to today’s tour. And it's the highlight of the expedition. We have to proceed in ancient taxis (Ladas proliferate in the Caucasus) and we speed off road, rally driver style, to the patch of mini volcanoes, once more located in the middle of the oil fields. It’s like being on the moon (I imagine).

The bubbling cones and mud flows are fascinating. Mud volcanoes may range in size from merely one or two metres high and one or two metres wide, to 700 metres high and 10 kilometre tall. These are mostly at the bottom of the range. and so are also, evocatively, known as mud-pots, Their temperatures can range from near 100 °C to occasionally 2 °C, some being used for "mud baths". I wasn't intending to indulge, but Doctor Tino and I decide to make our photos more exciting and generate an explosion, by throwing rocks into a pool. This works rather too well and I’m splattered in mud from head to toe. Anyway, Tino gets some amusing pictures.

Exit From Baku

The airport is another showy display. It’s incredibly spacious, with arty bars, and is virtually empty. There’s also rather too much attention to bureaucratic detail and some sullen immigration officers. Turkmenistan here I come.

(Read more about Azerbaijan here.)

The Golden Eagle Luxury Train

I’m finally on the train, in Georgia, after crossing the border from Armenia. It's not quite 'Midnight train to Georgia'. The railway station is dark and embarkation is far more subdued out here, on this border outpost, than it was on my Moscow journey. Then there was a VIP lounge with champagne, a harpist and a brass band. But opulence still rules ok. We still get the cute cabin attendants standing on red carpets to help us into our cabins, which are still all swags, lace and brocade. My attendant has a husband to help her too. He lugs all the cases. I wonder if they squash into her tiny cabin together.

There’s still a huge bowl overflowing with fruit at the end of the corridor, and too much to eat. The caviar welcome dinner involves vodka and champagne in crystal glasses and tiny delicious blinis with cream. Some of the staff are the same as on my last trip. I have photos to prove it. And we have three chefs, one Russian, one Chinese and one Ukrainian on board. This trip is not cheap and my fellow passengers are an affluent bunch. Some are on the trip of a lifetime. Most are movers and shakers. Laura, for example, is a VP of one of the most well known companies in the world.

The Riff Raff Club

Those in Imperial Class get a separate car and guide, so they don’t have to travel in the bus with us. I’m in lowly silver class. I can’t find anywhere in my cabin to put my clothes, but otherwise it’s comfy. My compact bathroom is a wet room, which converts to a shower cubicle by unfolding a curtain all the way round. Amazingly, it works. Four of us, who occupied the back of the bus have formed a breakaway group called the Riff Raff Club. Shane, who is part of our group, was a big wig at a very large American company. Farida runs her own business in Uganda. And Tino is the train’s doctor, so that’s useful.

Space Age Tbilisi, Capital of Georgia.

There is medley of architecture in Tbilisi; a startling amount of it is space-age. Here is yet another president (Mikheil Saakashvili) with a penchant for flashy prestige projects to impress foreign investors and politicians. There are towers, statues and cupolas aplenty (illuminated at night of course). There's a golden statue of (patron) saint George, slaying his dragon dominating Tbilisi's central square. It's on a 35 foot coulmn so you can't escape it.

There are also a pair of long steel and glass tubes that were going to be museums and may or may not get completed. In addition, a new parliament building - a concrete bubble, and a futuristic bridge that has unfortunately, (according to Lonely Planet), been nicknamed the Always Bridge, because of its curvy shape. The spanking new police stations are all glass and see through, symbolic of Georgia's aspirations for democratic transparency. The developments don't sit well alongside subsistence farming in the countryside. And the glass doesn't work too well in the hot summers. The modern side of town has French style boulevards, lined with crumbling shabby chic villas, many dabbling in art deco.

Old Town Tbilisi

It’s all a complete contrast to the maze-like, cobblestone streets of its old town, on the other side of the Kura River, which bisects the whole of Georgia. Perched above are the domes of the sulphur spring bathhouses, tiled and terracotta and a fortress and mosque. The mosque is the only one, so is unique in being used by both Sunni and Shia Muslims. There are plenty of churches, the Sioni cathedral, 13 renovated caravanserai (mostly now converted to shopping malls) and a lively balconied street full of cafes and restaurants. Slightly incongruously, Leonard Cohen is playing  in one of them.

Then there’s a very long lunch - again. Most of them last two hours and involve mezze of different kinds of flat bread, baked on the premises, tomato, cucumber and herb salads, dolmades, aubergine rolls and soft cheese, before minced patties, stew or kebabs emerge and some roast potatoes. Dishes arrive one at time so there is never a complete plate of food English style. There’s a really good inside out cottage cheese pastry or pizza. Finally,  out comes a bottle of chacha, the lethal Georgian schnapps.

Dinner is in yet another local restaurant and involves much the same food as lunch, accompanied by a lengthy dancing performance involving many changes of costume, cossack leaping in long black boots and fake plaits.

Wine Growing in Kakheti, Georgia

Today, we head into the countryside, where  the Caucasus Mountains (the tallest range in Europe proper), still snow-capped, frame our back drop and farmers scratch out a subsistence living that’s very different to the show of Tbilisi. Some of the roads are narrow and windy and in need of repair. It doesn’t help that last night’s repast is disagreeing with me badly and I have to ask for the bus to halt at a gas station before the planned toilet stop.

Georgia is famous for the ancient wine-growing region Kakheti. It borders the Great Caucasus range with summits over 3,000 metres. The earliest evidence of wine to date in the world has been found here in Georgia, where 8,000-year old wine jars were uncovered, hence its importance. There are said to be about 500 varieties of vine in Georgia today and the wine, we are told, symbolises Georgian hospitality, friendship and tolerance and is the key to Georgian longevity. There you go..

The Tsinindali estate is a former aristocratic family residence, with a well manicured 'English style park'. It's now a little museum, with wine-tasting of course. It has views over the Caucasus, as does Shumachmann’s Winery in the Kizikhi, area, with lunch and more wine tasting.

Sighnaghi

It’s a long and tiring drive with a final stop at Sighnaghi. This is a royal town on the Silk Road, containing a multitude of wooden balconies with sloping tiled roofs. Its surrounded by walls with 23 towers. Each of these towers were named after nearby villages and respective families and served as a refuge in case of danger. It's said to be the longest defensive wall outside China. There are more good views, this time across the lower part of town, with a fortress and church

Georgia, Home of Stalin

Overnight, the train has moved 100 kilometres to Gori. This involves much crashing and banging, as the engine is shunted. The rails are clearly not in very good shape. At one point all my clothes come showering down from their overhead niche and land on my bed. It’s a rude and much too premature awakening.

We’re again on the bus, which is taking us back to Tbilisi, where the train will have already returned. First, the Stalin Museum; and it's a timely visit.  It's the hundredth anniversary of the October Revolution and there are a plethora of Stalin based books, video and radio programmes  around in the UK at the moment. (Iannuci's film, The Death of Stalin is particularly good.)

In the museum, is more or less every object you can think of that might possibly be emblazoned or engraved with pictures of Stalin. Laura points out that in his youth Stalin looks like George Michael. In most of the pictures his small pox scars and withered arm are airbrushed out. Though I think they called it retouched then. Gori is his birthplace and he is still revered, despite being responsible for more deaths than anyone else in the history of the world. His old house is encased in a neoclassical villa in the grounds, which are home to numerous dogs, all tagged and cared for by the town. We are told that this is because Stalin liked them. However, I’ve also read that he used to attach explosives to dogs and send them into the Nazi camps.

Uplistsikhe

It’s a diverse itinerary today. The ancient city at Uplistsikhe is a troglodyte warren of cave homes, halls and temples, dating from the sixth century BC. Up top a pretty, red roofed basilica which is relatively young, as it was built in the ninth or tenth century. It's best appreciated from a distance as the caves are devoid of decoration.

The weather is still, beautiful, much to the guide’s surprise: ‘But it’s always windy up here,’ We are shuffling around, sweltering in the big coats we wore, as instructed. Lunch is inserted in-between and follows a sealed menu (rolled and tied with gold ribbon), with more Cossack style folk dancing.

Mtskheta

Mtskheta is one of the oldest cities of Georgia, located at the confluence of the Mtkvari and Aragvi rivers. Today, it's a small provincial town, but, for nearly a millennium until the fifth century AD, Mtskheta was a large fortified city, the capital of the Kingdom of Iberia. Mtskheta is seen as the birthplace of Christianity in Georgia, and has two significant churches (of course) in and above the old capital. One of these is Svetitskhoveli Cathedral. They became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994. A multiplicity of weddings seem to be taking place at both, but above has the best views.

Back on the train, and on to Azerbaijan.

Getting into Armenia

We head diagonally across the Black Sea from Kiev (it looks pretty blue today) and across the Caucasus Mountains to Armenia. It’s really windy up in the sky and our plane is bouncing over the snow-capped peaks. Naturally, we are diverted by air traffic control and spend a further twenty minutes jolting around in circles before we finally land. I’m not sure why. There are only four planes at the airport. It turns out that all the men in leather jackets reeking of tobacco and being very loud were Armenian. When we arrive at Passport Control they try every trick in their armoury to get ahead in the queue. Most of them just sidle alongside or even walk rapidly up the edge. No-one challenges them, until one man actually clambers under the ropes alongside the designated  queuing path. The attendant sends him back firmly. He just grins.

The Train That Isn't

This is my second trip to Armenia. Read about the first one here. I’m supposed to be picking up the Golden Eagle train to travel through the Caucasus this time, but apparently the Azeris have scuppered this plan. Relations between Armenia and neighbouring Azerbaijan have been fraught for years and the two countries are technically still at war over Nagorno-Karabakh, (read more about this here). And the Azeris have suddenly decreed that our train may not enter Azerbaijan if it has been to Armenia. So, the train is waiting on the Georgian border and we have to do our sightseeing here and then travel by bus on Thursday, to meet it. I assume the same rule doesn’t apply to people.

Geghard and Garni, Armenia

This is a ‘luxury’ tour and we’ve all been issued with audio devices, so we can amble around, while the poor guide is speaking and wondering if he is just talking to himself. We head out of town, a return visit for me to the Geghard Monastery and the Garni Temple.  Both are more notable, as far as I am concerned, for their settings, than their architectural interest.

They are both spectacularly set in different rocky gorges. It’s still glorious weather, an Indian Summer is forecast for the Caucasus and Central Asia and there is golden autumn colour in abundance. Mount Ararat, draped in snow, sits to the right for the whole of our drive. It is the principal national symbol of Armenia however, after numerous border changes, it is now actually located within Turkey. There’s a widely-held belief in Armenia that Noah’s Ark is embedded in ice atop Mount Ararat. Despite many expeditions, said ark has never been found, (our guide says that photographs have even been taken from space to assist the search), but that doesn’t stop it appearing on Armenia’s coat of arms.

Our visit has a suitably touristy finale with Armenian dance and music.

Yerevan, Armenia

Yerevan, the capital nestles in the valley below. It hasn’t changed much in the last eight years. It’s still not hugely interesting, there isn’t much left that’s old and Armenia is still the poor relation in the Caucasus. There are a few more Armagnac factories on the drive from the airport. The crane is still in place at the top of the huge Cascades stairway. The traffic is still awful. And the genocide museum is still incredibly moving. We lay white flowers around the eternal flame that burns above the city.

In the evening, dinner with Jennifer who lives in Boston. She is really good fun and I met her on my tour to the Balkans two years ago. By some serendipitous occurrence our paths have crossed for one night in Yerevan. We only discovered this via Facebook. Amazing! Really good to catch up.

Black Van, Armenia

Now I’m retracing my steps past Mount Ararat and along gleaming Lake Sevan (Black Van to distinguish it from the Van in Turkey). The two little monastery churches on the peninsular are still scenic and it’s still hard work, climbing the 200 odd steps to reach them at an altitude of 1900 metres.

Haghhartsin

There’s a stop at a village called Dilijan, which is billed as a reconstructed street. It’s more of a little tourist trap with shops jammed with souvenirs and a ‘masterclass’ from a ceramicist, in the hope of inducing us to buy his pots. The foliage here is just beginning to turn and there are dappled patterns all along the hills, below the snow painted peaks. Then a monastery new to me. Haghhartsin, with its twin spires and several churches stands in another gorge, stunning with the autumn foliage. It has been restored, with money donated by the Emir of Sharjah. This is somewhat surprising, as he is a Muslim. But he is said to have found the site to be exceedingly beautiful - he also visited in the autumn.

The bus wends its way along the Azeri border - a hotbed of tension - even away from Nagorno-Karabakh. The hills are green and smooth here, rolling away in huge velvety folds. There are some abandoned (and roofless) houses. We have already suffered the inconvenience of having our train hijacked. Our local guide, who has much to say about the injustices perpetuated by both the Turks and the Azeris has numerous stories of people who have been denied entry to Azerbaijan because they have Armenian connections. The most bizarre involves an American woman whose first husband was Armenian. She has since remarried, but is still not allowed in. I’m seriously beginning to wonder if we will be permitted entry having spent three days in Armenia. But first Georgia.

Ishikagi to Tokyo

I've decided to wait for the airport at Ishikagi to eat, as food will almost certainly be cheaper there. There's a sentence I never thought I would write. Purchasing nourishment in Japan is still a mine field. The departure lounge looks a bit like a supermarket, with stands and huge garish signs. Trying to find something that looks vaguely recognisable is the first problem, let alone ordering it. Eventually, I discover that some of the stalls have little picture book menus to point at. Though I still end up with pickled vegetable sushi,rather than the salmon or tuna I was fondly imagining. It's got sugar on it too. So much for healthy eating.

The boarding calls are made by a little man in a Hawaiian style shirt, shouting through a megaphone. He’s bowing and smiling as he does it. And you are allowed to take water though security. They have a little machine to check that it really is water. How civilised is that?

Haneda Airport

I get views of Mount Fuji in full sun setting glory from the plane and I can still see the cone peeping round the corner of the control tower from my airport hotel window, at Haneda, in Tokyo. This is tomorrow’s destination - I'm going to a flower festival called Shibasakura – phlox blossom. Sakura is cherry blossom and the act of blossom viewing is called hanami. You’re supposed to have a party under the trees. This festival promises hot pink carpets, all round the bottom of Fuji.

Meanwhile, I'm in search of more airport food. Forget cosmetics or designer bags. It’s all comestibles in the airports here. A fragrant bowl of ramen noodles, with vegetable tempura for three pounds - that’s a bit more like it. I'm not quite full, but the smiling young ladies touting their wares give me free tastings of the huge variety of rice and ground bean based sweets and waffle cakes on offer. So that’s sorted that. Now, I have to choose my pyjamas - they supply them in all the hotel rooms here. The Japanese wander round the hotels quite happily, wearing them.

Long Distance Bus to Kawaguchigo - Mixed Blessings

Today, I'm trying out the long distance bus system. This time, men with microphones wearing surgical face masks shepherd us into tidy numbered lines and onto the correct bus. (A large proportion of the Japanese wear face masks - sometime the women have blue ones. It’s ostensibly to prevent spreading or acquiring infection, but it’s also a good way of avoiding social contact.) I'm able to see something of the many canals around Tokyo harbour and the scrapers of high tech Shinjuku. It certainly seems far more sci-fi here and the elevated sections make London’s West Way look decrepit.

Finally, out of the city, the alpine scenery is extraordinarily pretty. There are wide valleys, with little chalet houses, just like Switzerland. The mountains are covered in feathery greenery, in a ravishing palette of fresh shades, the whole liberally sprinkled with sakura. But the efficiency of the transport even puts Switzerland to shame. Everything leaves on time, to the second, the microphone men bowing to the drivers.

Kawaguchigo

Things go downhill, when I arrive at Kawaguchigo. I dip into the tourist office, as I am not sure which bus to get to the festival and the lady there just looks at my waving leaflet and says don't bother; there are no flowers. She takes great delight in showing me pictures of the site, which resembles a huge mudslide. It’s a glorious clear day. There are already tantalising views of Fuji towering above the station, so I decide to go to my hotel,drop off my stuff, walk round the lake and search for sakura instead. I wait 45 mins for the hotel bus, in the right place, as instructed.

I finally get to the hotel, to be told I‘m not booked in there. My itinerary says one thing, the tour company booking another. So Fuji View Hotel gets Fuji Lake Hotel to send a mini bus to pick me up - all very annoying and time consuming. Especially, as the Fuji Lake bus had come much earlier, while I was waiting, and the Fuji View is set in the most beautiful gardens, with all the cherry trees in flower and great views of Fuji. I run around madly, taking pictures and leaping in the lift, to visit the panorama lounge, before they throw me out.

Fuji

My hotel proper thankfully also has Fuji views, though it is pretty dated in style - like a typical beige English caravan. And it’s also very Japanese. There are bedroom slippers, plastic toilet slippers and a tea set in a glass and wooden box. As with many of the lavatories here, you can set this one to make flushing or lapping noises while you are in there, to ‘cover your embarrassment’.

So, not all is gloom and doom. Moreover, there is sakura, a memorable jaunt round the lake, though it’s a little blustery, and great views of Fuji, who has obligingly draped herself in fresh snow, for the iconic souvenir photographs. Once you manage to navigate your way past all the tourists taking selfies and group pictures, all along the path. Most of the blossom is creamy white, but from a distance, in the sun, it takes on a pinkish hue.

Back in my hotel room, I have top floor views of the mountain. I can even see Fuji, while I'm sitting in my bath. Well I could if they had thought to illuminate it. Filling the little tub is another aptitude test. The taps are on the windowsill and the shower is on the wall, wet room style. Needless to say it spouts all over me, as soon as I turn on the taps. And I'm not undressed yet. When I finish my bath and pull out the plug, the water spurts out of the drain, all over the floor – and any part of my clothing that wasn’t already wet.

There is a Spartan resonance to this place. The wind has got more blustery all day and now it's a howling gale. The bar area is chilly to say the least, but they resolutely refuse to light the fire that is set. The Japanese tourists have all donned the kimonos and over jackets that are provided in the rooms, so they all look as if they are in grey and maroon uniforms. Or prison garb.

Unexpectedly, I'm finding it very hard to get fed. Breakfast notices announce that no-one will be allowed entrance after 8.30 a.m. Eating other meals is another challenge. I didn't get any lunch because of all the kerfuffle and thought I would wait till dinner to save some time, so I could go walking. But you can't have dinner here, unless you reserve in advance and it's a 10 course Japanese extravaganza anyway. The bar only does sandwiches in the evening and there isn't anything else open in the vicinity. The staff speak hardly any English, so can't be any more helpful, though they are trying. So, my main meal for today is a toasted ham and cheese! Maybe I will end up as slim as all the Japanese. The Japanese women are so elegant, with such beautiful porcelain skin.

Fuji to Sendai on the Train

Breakfast today makes up for yesterday’s paucity on the nutrition front. It is a grand affair, offering a conglomeration of everything Japanese and Japanese western. You can even have ice cream. Now, I'm off to try my luck on the trains for the first time. The initial leg is easy enough, though it’s called an express (for which I’ve paid an extra 400 yen) and it chugs its way sleepily along the valleys. The scenery is so lovely it’s impossible to mind. Perhaps the driver is admiring it.

The second leg, back to Tokyo, in a proper express, also goes off relatively smoothly. I’ve even worked out how to stand in the right place for my reserved carriage. The first and second lines painted on the platform alongside all the assorted carriage markings are a little misleading, until I realise that they signify the order of the trains and not the class of travel. There is plenty of room in the carriages, and all the seats face forward. They swing them round at the termini. The next stage is Tokyo, for the shinkansen (bullet train) to Sendai. The carriage attendants here, male and female, have flowers in their caps and they even bow to the mighty engines, as they sweep gracefully along the platform.

However, I should have known better than to write how wonderful and punctual it all is. Tokyo main station is in chaos. All the trains are delayed, because there is something stuck in an overhead cable. I ask some little men where to go for my train and they haven’t a clue, fobbing me off with a guess at the wrong platform. Eventually, I work it out for myself and I end up on a train that will get me there earlier than my planned itinerary, even taking into account the delay. It’s just like London.

On the train, I'm writing my blog, checking the weather forecast and trying to remember not to blow my nose. It’s considered very rude, especially when you’re eating. So everyone sniffs all the time, which is much less irritating, of course. The train has just slowed right down through Fukushima - site of the earthquake and nuclear leak. I'm wondering if I should hold my breath…...Out of the left hand window I can see the snowy peaks of the mountains that form Japan’s spine. On the right, there is still blossom on the little trees in the orchards. Fingers crossed. I'm heading north, in search of sakura.

Sendai Sakura

I'm based at Sendai for three nights and here the sun is a little more elusive. It’s what we Brits would call chilly. It’s a very modern city, home to about one million. As Wikimedia says: "Sendai is not too big and not too small, it's very convenient and it's close to both the sea and the mountains."

I scurry along the long avenues, between the parks, searching for sakura. There are lanterns in the trees, gay stalls and plenty of stalwarts out on blue plastic sheeting, conducting hanami. It seems to me that for many of the men this means consuming as much beer as possible. But it’s all very good natured and everyone appears to be having fun. Some parties have gone to a great deal of trouble to pack hampers and even lay out coordinating place settings. The pinkish white blossom at Nishi Park has partially fallen. But two miles in the other direction, at Tsutsujigaoka Park (try saying that after a beer), the candy floss pink weeping cherries are in full bloom, with their long flailing tresses. The setting sun and the crowds make good photographs difficult, though you can’t help but smile at the antics under the trees.

I'm exhausted after tramping everywhere with my camera and getting up at silly o'clock to catch the trains. Back at my hotel, the travel company have treated me to dinner tonight, to make up for yesterday’s problems - Japanese Italian. It’s surprisingly good, as is the Negroni. Maybe I won’t be losing weight after all.

Everything is still organised to the nth detail. My toilet seat lifts itself up when I enter, though my capsule room is so small I probably couldn't bend over to lift it up. No room to do your asanas in here. When you go to breakfast you are given a place card to reserve your space at a table, while you get your food. You return it when you leave. Even the lift reads your room key card, to take you briskly to the correct floor. Society goes to great lengths to make sure that everyone behaves fairly and politely. And no-one would dream of crossing the road before the little green man blinks. Is this overdoing things I wonder? Repression or the highest form of society?

All the Ks - Kakunodate and Kitikama

I'm on a super express heading for the north of Honshu - mainland Japan - today. I’m still in search of cherry blossom, today combined with samurai houses at Kakunodate. It's over 240 kilometres, so it sounds mad for a day trip, but it's only an hour and a half on these ultra efficient trains. This is the fastest shinkansen line in the country and it runs at up to 200 miles per hour.

I catch a glimpse of a cherry blossom festival in an orchard, with trees in full bloom, but I can't see which town we are in. I think it might be Kitikama, where I'm due to go tomorrow - wow that was quick. The train is zipping along and most of the scenery is a blur.

At Morioka, the train splits in two. One part heads northward to Hokkaido. My bit turns east and skirts the mountains all the way to my destination. They are white capped, the sky is blue and there are gushing streams and waterfalls. There are patches of snow right up to the line. It all promises a good day. But I’ve been tantalised again.

Kakunodate

There is a bank of cloud hovering over Kakunodate and the much anticipated weeping cherries are nowhere near ready to flower. There are tight buds on some of them and just two trees in blossom, outside the heritage centre. And naturally, this whole walkway is full of tourists taking their photographs under them. There are posters everywhere, taunting me, depicting the carpets of blossom and flower tunnels, when the sakura is in its full glory. The townspeople however, are acting as if the blossom is already here. There are stalls lining the road, sprays of plastic blossom and car park attendants with batons ready for the onslaught. It will be glorious during Golden Week, the national holiday, in a fortnight's time.

Meanwhile, the row of three hundred year old samurai houses and the heritage centre are both worth a wander. The Kakunodate Samurai District, which once housed about 80 families, is said to be one of the best examples of samurai architecture and housing in the country. Six are open to the public, the most notable are the Aoyagi House and the Ishiguro House.

Then, I saunter down the river walkway, imagining how lovely it is going to be when the flowers appear. Every so often, I am besieged by groups of local school children excitedly carrying out surveys and practising their English.

Kitikami

The forecast for tomorrow is less promising, so I change my ticket and take the slower train 100 kilometres back to Kitikami. I’m hopeful that was the place where I saw the cherry blossom on the way up. The city is famous for the sakura that bloom in Tenshochi Park. And maybe the sun will come back. In any case it will free up tomorrow.

The sky is indeed properly azure at Kitikami and there is a two kilometre avenue of snowy cherry trees coming into full blossom along the banks of the river. I pop over on the ferry and join the ranks of the revellers taking carriage rides or boat tours. there's a mini fairground and a rammed car park. The sky is just clouding over as I finish, and the first spots of rain pursue me back to the station. You win some and you lose some.

The Nihon Sankei

There's a patch of clear sky wafting around Japan and I’ve been trying to match my expeditions to its presence. Today, the weather map says it will be above Matsushima Bay. It’s half an hour on the train from Sendai and the guide book informs me it's one of the three scenic must-sees in Japan (the nihon sankei). Selected several centuries ago, they consist of Matsushima, Miyajima and Amanohashidate. Why isn't Fuji on the list I wonder? Anyway, here I am.

Matsushima Bay

A proper tourist today. I cruise round the bay admiring the 260 odd little limestone islands, amble round a temple or two and up an imposing avenue of cedar trees, enjoy a very pretty zen garden with a samurai mausoleum and a temple or two and cross a traditional red bridge to another of the islands. Exceptionally pleasant - and it's sunny as promised. There’s even sakura. The Japanese tourists forgo the oohing and aahing at the islands. I'm not sure they even look at them. They spend most of the voyage rearranging themselves for group pictures against the rail. Then they go into the saloon, drink tea and look at their photographs.

There's also a temple, with gardens and a small castle, - you have to go over a bridge to reach them ,in the more built up area, away from the dock.

This probably sounds crass and obvious, but this is such a unique culture. There are very few recognisable western brands. The food is unlike anything anywhere else. There's a faint whiff of sour frying (or is it sake brewing?) as I pass the restaurants. It's not entirely pleasant.

Restrooms (as they are called in American fashion) are plentiful and even most of the public facilities are kitted out with all singing, all dancing, bowls and wall panel controls. It's a peaceful warm place to sit and organise myself when I'm tired.

Oyama

I'm saturated with Sakura now, so I'm off in search of other blossom. A shinkansen back down south to Oyama and then a local train, which trundles along excruciatingly slowly, through low lying hills and paddy fields. The plants are very young and the shoots poke through the water, in neat geometric patterns. There is still some ploughing too, the miniature tractors throwing up lines of spray.

The local trains are driven from the last car, by earnest young men who act as guards, checking into electronic controls, on each platform and also inspecting and issuing tickets. It crosses my mind that I should offer them work on the Brighton line. I'm still being kept in order. There are frequent announcements saying that mobile phones should be kept in silent mode.

Hitachi Seaside Park

Today's destination is the Hitachi Seaside Park. Me and half of Japan. (I read that the population of Japan is reducing rapidly. It was 128 million, but the birth rate is reducing so rapidly that it is projected to fall to 88 million eventually, with an ever ageing top end to finance.)

It's a sunny spring Sunday and a whole hillside covered in blue nemophila is advertised. The site is swarming and the lines for food tickets and toilets alarming. The good news is that the flowers are almost completely in bloom and very pretty. There are four and half million of the ‘baby blue eyes’ spilling over the slopes. I'm not sure they are any more attractive than the fields of flax or lavender found closer to home, but somehow the ant like hordes crisscrossing the slopes add to the interest.

There's a good view of the sea at the top and a bell, which the locals are queuing up to ring. A surfeit of standing and waiting going on here, but it's all very orderly. Added attractions are an egg forest that has flower beds of gorgeous tulips - a huge variety of species and colours and a narcissi garden, that is still very fresh in parts, a sea of bobbing fried eggs. The advertised forest eggs I hasten to add, are metallic and large, designed for children to scramble in (sorry I can't resist it). The Japanese seem very fond of small dogs, but the pampered canines seem reluctant to walk and are carried in arms or baskets. I’ve even noticed several being trundled in tartan prams.

Organising Your Travel in Japan

My luggage is waiting for me when I get back to Oyama. This is yet another really neat piece of organisation. You can send your luggage on ahead, to save hefting it on the trains, for about ten pounds a time. So far it’s found its way to the correct location. So have I; I'm using a seven day tourist rail pass that is excellent value - as long as I don't lose it. I've also now learned to use Google maps to plot all my walking, even in Japanese, Google translate to ask for what I want and a nifty app to plan all my train travel. I'm carrying a little router I rented on the internet to make sure I stay connected. So I'm weighed down but not lost.

Eating in Oyama, Japan

Oyama doesn’t promise to be the most exciting place I’ve ever stayed at; it was chosen for its convenience. The hotel is very brown, verging on dreary, with opaque bedroom windows and the streets are extraordinarily empty when I arrive. Maybe everyone has gone to the Seaside Park. Things have improved when I venture out for dinner. There is a main square around the station and some little spurs off it. These boast some tempting little bistro type places lit, with Japanese lanterns and decorated with banners. It’s all rather chi-chi.

I'm still at sea, when it comes to knowing what to order in Japan. Purchasing edibles on the go is easier, I just buy sushi from one of the many convenience stores. At times I can be a little more adventurous, though it’s still fraught. There are usually cabinets of fried objects in batter, so I point at three of those at random. Consumption reveals: a very spicy piece of chicken schnitzel, some chicken on a stick in crispy batter, which is tasty, and the piece de resistance - a frankfurter in a balloon shaped very sweet batter, which is interesting. Toad in the hole on a stick.

My cider turns out to be a very synthetic fizzy soft drink, with no apple in it at all and my sparkling mineral water is lychee flavoured. I'm still puzzled as to where the healthy bit comes in, but back to dinner. I can only work out what type of restaurant it is,if they are kind enough to display photographs of the food and these can be misleading. Tonight, it turns out to be Japanese Indian.

Another interesting tiny bathroom to grapple with. In this one, the same tap feeds both the bathtub and the sink. So I have to remember to swing it in the correct direction, or there are consequences.

Ashigake Flower Park - Wisteria Hysteria

The Japanese are such delightful considerate people - unless they're taking photographs and then they’re schizophrenic. They dive in front of everything and everyone and pose. It's really difficult to get an uncluttered view of the attractions, however insignificant.

Today, I've followed the good weather to Ashigake Flower Park, which is world renowned for its wisteria. The gardens are absolutely exquisite, if a little over manicured at times. Thoughtfully organised, with delightful seating areas in the midst of the banks of flowers, on little islands in ponds, by cafes with no queueing. There's even a large ‘resting field’ with neatly lined up tables, chairs and parasols. It's all incredibly relaxing, despite the photo bombing; there’s even Bach and Chopin tinkling away in the background. (The Japanese have piped classical music almost everywhere, including the restrooms).

There is more sakura, azalea, masses of annuals immaculately arranged in beds and fantastically tiered islands and two toned lupins in layered cones. How have they managed to get them all to grow to the required height like that?

Wisteria is called Fuji in Japanese and there are wisteria trees in blossom: pearly white, baby blanket pink and a little purple. There's even a Monet style bridge with a pink fringe on top. One ‘but’ today is that the famous giant trees, which provide the trellis blossoms are not yet in bloom.

I brought a selfie stick with me, but I haven't had the confidence to try it out yet. Though if I can't use a selfie here where can I? When in Japan..... where's the best wisteria tree?

The other ‘but’ is that the rich wisteria scent, which pervades the park, has attracted some enormous hornet like insects, that look identical to killer bees. They are gliding down the paths, hovering in and out of the ducking visitors. It could make for some interesting pictures.

And who knew that the iPhone automatically creates an album for your selfies?

Fukuoka - Bloom and Gloom

More famous last words. My Brown Hotel staff inform me, on inquiry, that the highly efficient luggage transport service will take two days to send my luggage ahead to Fukuoka. Fair enough, I think it’s a long way, it’s on another island. Send it to Haneda Airport instead, I suggest. No, that will also take two days. It’s projected to take me just under two hours this morning I hope, so the logic defies me. I suspect it may take me longer than two hours and some bad language, now I have to propel my large case onto the trains and buses.

On arrival in Fukuoka, I'm told that the bucket list wisteria tunnel I’ve come all this way to see is not yet in bloom and it’s raining hard. I still have to go to Kokura tomorrow, near the wisteria garden, as my hotel has been booked. I’ve not heard anything about my North Korea trip being cancelled, even though Trump’s aircraft carrier is now in position. It’s a little stressful. Also disappointingly, it seems that the Japanese do not pronounce Fukuoka anything like the way I have been saying it - with some relish.

One compensation is that I can have another Japanese massage. Little ladies wearing nurse style tunics turn up at my door, kneel on the bed and give all my pressure points a good pummelling. It’s all very proper. I’m not even allowed to take off my clothes.

A Watery Finale to Japan

It’s still raining whatever the Japanese equivalent of cats and dogs is, and it’s set in for the day. Nevertheless, I feel I should see something of the city. Fukuoka sits on the northern shore of Japan’s Kyushu Island. It’s known for ancient temples, beaches and modern shopping malls, including Canal City. and the ruins of 17th-century Fukuoka Castle. I'm in the central Hakata district which contains the Tōchō-ji Temple, home to a 10 metre wooden Buddha and the Hakata Machiya Folk Museum.

So, I set off for a Shinto shrine that’s dedicated to sailors. It’s early seventeenth century, the oldest and first of its kind in the country and its theme seems appropriate for today. Like most Japanese shrines, it is rewardingly colourful and peaceful. The red walls are almost orange. There seems to be some equivalent ceremony to a christening going on – a baby wearing its best clothes is held by a robed priest, surrounded by adults, and drums are banging.

The shinkansen speeds me the 30 odd miles to Kokura in just over 15 minutes. My last night is to be spent in a fancy tower block hotel and my room has extensive views across the north of Kyushu, over the harbour and up to Honshu. I can just make out the connecting suspension bridge in the distance. The green pin cushioned mountains are visible through the clouds, forming a backdrop to the high rise blocks and I can see the trains arriving below me, like a Hornby OO railway. This is more fun than going out and getting soaked. A final Japanese buffet and breakfast. I’m still grappling with my chopsticks. Using them to eat scrambled egg and bacon, like the Japanese, is beyond my capabilities.

Next stop Beijing. I am very sorry to leave Japan. (Read more about Japan here). But it will be good to sit on a toilet that doesn’t make me jump by flushing ‘to prepare itself’ .when I'm trying to relax.

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