Burnt to a cinder

On 10th August 2018, a wooden church at Kondopoga in Northern Russia was burnt down in what appears to have been an act of madness by a teenager. The church sat on a low promontory on the shores of Lake Onega. It was built entirely of wood and without nails. Its wonderful proportions, a tall elegant spire are now reduced to a pile of ashes. The Russians of Karelia know how to build in wood, so hopefully a church will be built to replace it. The inside of the church was blessed with the most wonderful painted dome, which my composite image tries to convey. I was prompted by the tragedy of the fire to write, by email, to the Russian Consul General here in Edinburgh to offer my commiserations. His deputy was kind enough to write back 5 minutes later. Hopefully a fund will be created to rebuild this lovely church which dated to 1774, when it was built in memory of the victims of an uprising, brutally suppressed by the Czar. There has been a sad history of those seeking fame by committing such appalling acts, as my friend Warwick Ball pointed out, when I wrote to tell him the sad news. Herostratus burnt down the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus so that his name would become well known: 'Herostratic fame'. The Temple of Artemis had been called one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, by among other people the historian Herodotus (484 – ca. 425 BC) and the scholar Callimachus of Cyrene (ca. 305–240 BC). This church of the Dormition has rightly been called 'the most beautiful wooden church of Northern Russia". Its survival through the Soviet period was all the more remarkable.


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A real gentleman of Swat

There was that poem about the Akond of Swat by that prince of the absurd, Edward Lear. It was his ear for the good rhyme which must have led him to write a poem full of questions about a character who must have seemed almost mythical. In 1989 I travelled to the Swat Valley in Northern Pakistan, and you may be amused by an encounter I had. I was travelling around in search of stock for my shop Out of the Nomads Tent, and trying to work out if I should bring a group to this beautiful part of the world. I decided to stay in the Pakistan Tourism Development Corporation hotel in Maidan. As I was costing out a tour I was keeping a close eye on expenses, to get a full understanding of how to price a tour. I was shown my nice bedroom and told the time for dinner. In due course I made way over to the dinning room and after a good meal I asked for the bill. The waiter apologised, saying that bills were normally only presented when guests left the hotel. I made a bit of a fuss and insisted that a bill be brought. The pound signs began to stack up in my imagination and I could see my costs spiraling out of control. Eventually the manager was summoned and politely asked what the matter was. I once again asked for the bill for my supper. He too repeated the mantra that bills were normally presented on departure but he said he'd prepare a bill immediately if I wanted one. In due course a waiter appeared bearing my bill for the equivalent of 75 pence. I felt so ashamed that I'd made such a fuss for a bill that amounted to less than £1. I settled up. I checked out of the hotel and went off to Baltistan (Devla Murphy wrote her account of that place in Where the Indus is Young). After a week away I returned to Swat and checked into the same PTDC hotel. The following day I checked out and when I cam to pay my bill I could see that the cost of dinner the previous night had been omitted. I pointed this out to the man at the reception desk who explained that dinner had been their gift to me!

In due course I did bring a group to Swat and you can guess where we stayed. As we were leaving after a lovely couple of days in this very special valley, the same manager, Mr Habib Afridi invited the group to a corner of the garden to formally plant a tree in memory of our visit. I was handed the spade and unaccustomed as I am to planting commemorative trees, solemnly put the soil onto the roots of the sapling.

A few years later, I was at home in Edinburgh when got a phonecall from Mr Afridi to say that he was in Vienna and would like to fly over for a night: could he come and stay? I made him welcome and in due course he arrived. He only with me for one night and during the following day I showed him round Edinburgh. I could see that he was unexcited about all that I could show him. We walked past the museum in Chambers Street, and then along George IV Bridge. Still nothing made him enthuse. I could see that as a tour guide I was failing. At the end of George IV Bridge, right next to the magnificent Bank of Scotland building we leaned on the railings and looked north over Edinburgh. It's a magnificent vista, but Mr Afridi was unmoved. And then suddenly his eyes alighted on the trees that cover Corstorphine Hill and he exclaimed 'Trees', and I realised I'd have done much better if I had taken him to the Edinburgh Botanic Garden.

It's nearly 30 years since my first visit to Swat, and I am still in touch with Mr Habib Afridi via his nephew, who rang today from Peshawar with Eid Greetings. What gentlemen.


Looking for bears in the Carpathians

The Carpathians snake through Europe, from southern Poland where they are called the Tatras through to the Alps.  A friend of mine who cycled from London to Delhi seemed to mainly remember steep climbs into the Carpathians when I told him I was visiting Romania! I was there in search of brown bears. I had heard that the largest concentration of bears in Europe is in Romania. The story, as you might imagine, is a mixed one!  Bears are iconic, but close up they are very dangerous. They don't like being surprised! So singing loudly as you walk through the beech woods is recommended. I saw the bears from the safety of hides. Some hide owners feed the bears with so much food that the bears alter their lives in light of reliable feeding. The males who are normally solitary will allow other bears to share their territory. Bears who get habituated to regular food (for example the rubbish bins in Brasov) may become dangerous when humans gets close. Where hide-owners are less generous in the food they put out, visits by bears may be fairly regular, but the small tit bits won't alter the bears behaviour. In the fading light of an October evening I photographed this bear who'd be lured to the hide by maize. The debate about bears is highlighted by the desire of some people to shoot this 'trophy' animal which can earn the landowner £25,000 per head. Paying to visit the hides seemed to me the better option.

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Meditation on Raqqa

The Syrian news may not get the front page as often as it used to. But the fall of Raqqa is widely heralded as the last stand of the odious forces of a barbarous so-called caliphate: if only life could be that simple.  I've only been to the city of Raqqa once. Although today in 2017 largely abandoned it used to be the 6th largest city in Syria, situated in the very east,  on the banks of the Euphrates, 300km from the Mediterranean. It reminds of me of a time when the border of the Roman world butted up with their rivals, the Persians. In those the days the major centres of the world were Rome, Byzantium, Baghdad, Ctesiphon, Alexandria. My suspicion is that ISIS/ISIL/Daesh seized the city because of its remoteness from Damascus. Over the last two thousands years it has been captured, devastated and seen an unfair amount of warring nations: Romans, Persians, the Omayyads, and the Abbasids. When the Mongols sacked the city in the 13th century, they destroyed a remarkable ceramics tradition. I am grateful to the distinguished potter, Laurence McGowan, for pointing this out when we were there: he told us that the term Rakka or Raqqa ware is still used to describe the distinctive pottery which was once produced there with lovely examples in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.  It was a sad city when we were there in 2006 with very high levels of unemployment, though we were warmly greeted by school boys in their blue uniforms. Some of the kids who were not in school clambered up the brick walls of the Baghdad gate, as you can see in my photograph. The city's capture/liberation in October 2017 by a combined Kurdish/Syrian Arab force supported by the USA will I am sure now open another can of worms, since no doubt the Assad government supported by the Russians will claim that it should be governed from Damascus. Pray for the people of this sad city.


Courage in the face of enormous adversity

A rug hanging in the current Dovecot Festival exhibition “Daughters of Penelope” (Edinburgh Fringe 2017) is described as dedicated to Irina Sendler, a name I’d not heard of before. The name sent me scurrying off to look her up and the most moving account of the 2500 babies she and her team smuggled out of the Warsaw Ghetto during WWII. The story is an incredible one of courage, as every day under the guise of a health worker looking for typhus she took out babies in the bottom of tool boxes, or concealed beneath the stretcher of the ambulance. The ambulance driver had taught his dog to start barking to cover up the cries of the babies, which in turn set off the barking of the guard dogs. Irina Sendler hid the names of each child and the foster family in a jar which she buried beneath an apple tree so that after the war there was a chance of reuniting the babies and their families. Tragically most of their parents in the ghetto were killed. To learn more about this incredibly plucky woman see http://www.irenasendler.org/facts-about-irena/ 


Fifty times more visitors

We may think we are travellers and other people are tourists but the truth is that we are all part of a huge surge in people who travel abroad. A quick look at the figures tells the story; as the cold war ended the worldwide figure for people who travelled was 25 million a year. By 1995 the figure had risen 20 fold, and the figure has since more than doubled. This year 1.2 Billion people crossed international boundaries. That means that nearly 50 times as many people travel today as did 30 years ago. FIFTY TIMES…

Much tourism seems to a few places: people continue to pile into the favourite cities. Barcelona, Berlin, and Paris come to mind, and Dubrovnik and Venice see too many cruise ships (the locals say). Some economies depend on the very thing that bites: tourism makes up 12 per cent of Spain's economy.  Biting the hand that feeds is not a recent tendency. Growing up in the Channel Island of Jersey in the 1960s, I was used to locals referring to tourists as ‘groccles’.

Since tourism employs more people than any other single industry in the world, decisions about limiting visitor numbers to Barcelona or Venice or Edinburgh need to be done thoughtfully. I have two concepts known as the 'Triangle' and ‘The other side of the river’. The Triangle is the idea that much tourism concentrates excessively on something like three sites in a country. Think of 'London, Oxford and Stonehenge'; or 'Delhi, Agra and Jaipur'. ‘The other side of the river’ is the observation that something over 6 million people visit the Taj Mahal every year. It is one of the great buildings in the world. But it is also lovely to see it from across the River Jumna. I have never known more than a handful of people on the opposite bank.

I’m not sure what the answer is, but certainly I increasingly aim to lead tours away from areas of mass tourism: we’ve just travelled in northern Russia where there were no crowds in May, where the museums have beautiful displays, and where we always felt safe.

The other answer may be that high pressure areas will need to levy a charge on each bed-night to pay for the services (litter collection and subsidised public transport?) that tourists demand, and discourage the very large numbers that are overwhelming the locals, and which is driving up rents through services such as Air B’n B.

Observers of Bhutan suggests that this lovely country got it right many years ago when they imposed on foreign tourists a minimum spend per day. It was said that they had seen what uncontrolled tourism had done to Nepal. Backpacking tourism from the 1960s onwards is said to have brought drugs, sex and rock ‘n roll to the Nepalese capital, threatening its fragile Buddhist and Hindu culture.  In Bhutan the high daily levy limits tourist numbers and a third of this levy goes towards the government’s budget for education and health care.

Here we are in the midst of the Edinburgh Festival, with pavements overflowing onto the streets, and the whole city energised by its very welcome visitors (both performers and audience). We mostly benefit from the street performers, the range of entertainment, thought provoking talks at the Book Festival and a boom month for those looking for a temporary job. Unlike tourism which concentrates everyone into a tight squeeze, the Edinburgh Festival/Fringe often crowds people into little used spaces, so the effect of so many people is dispersed through the city. The flip side must be the inflated rents, and those locals who cannot afford somewhere to live. A city without affordable rents will eventually get into a terrible mess…no teachers, no rubbish collectors, no skilled craft workers, no one to mend the fabric of the city…the list goes on. The onus is now on governments (local and national) to thoughtfully approach this hot potato and not get their fingers burnt.

A new tunnel discovered beneath the Kremlin

Well! there we were in Moscow over the Orthodox Christmas holiday. Temperatures had fallen to a record low of minus 28, which had not been recorded in the city at Christmas for 120 years. Many Muscovites were driven indoors, and the men and women trying to sell holiday snacks, and gifts in the stalls around Red Square were having a very hard time of it. Minus 28 is so cold that to get your hands out of your gloves and pocket to take a photograph is almost injurious to health, and it takes ages before the blood is flowing back into your digits. Moscow was looking superb: there was snow on the domes of St Basil's Cathedral, and no one was queuing to see Lenin's tomb. The Moscow River was frozen over, and we were all waddling along like penguins partly to stay upright on icy pavements and partly because we had all our clothes on! Everyone was friendly, and when help was needed, we were willingly assisted. We hugely enjoyed exploring the Moscow Metro, which is a testament to the many who died or were killed building it, and to a commitment to the decorative arts. And talking of tunnels...it was while walking close to the edge of Red Square, beneath the fortress walls of the Kremlin that we came across some workmen fixing a huge trapdoor which was levered open, and showed steps leading who knows where: but surely under the Kremlin.