Mismatched Bookends: Two very different trips, back to back
Part I -- Geopolitics

We start with a modern history lesson.

The U.S.S.R was comprised of fifteen constituent republics.  Within the Azerbaijan S.S.R. was the Autonomous Oblast of Nagorno-Karabakh, an ethnic Armenian enclave.  The republics and subregions were largely a fiction as they were all ruled from Moscow.  When the Soviet Union disintegrated, things got messy.  Nagorno-Karabakh (“Nagorno” is Russian for “mountainous”) wanted union with the newly independent Armenia, or barring that, to be independent itself.  Armenia was very much with them; Azerbaijan said “no.”  The First Nagorno-Karabakh War in 1992-94 between the two ended in an Armenian victory with the resulting “Artsakh Republic” encompassing the entire former Soviet Oblast plus adjacent Azeri districts; it was unrecognized by any nation other than Armenia.  Some 700,000 Azeri refugees fled, leaving 20% of Azerbaijani territory in hostile hands.  Russian peacekeepers manned the cease-fire lines.

Fast forward to 2020.  Azerbaijan, now in control of its oil wealth, has gotten its act together politically and militarily.  Through innovative use of drones and with Turkish aid, in the brief but intense Second Nagorno-Karabakh War it recaptured its lost territory and reduced the Armenian-controlled enclave to about half its original size.  Russian peacekeepers monitor the new cease-fire lines, including the strategic Lachlin corrider between Armenia proper and its rump dependent.

Although Armenia capitulated in the latest conflict, it has for the past thirty years been winning the propaganda war, at least in the west.  In an effort to get out its side of the story, Azerbaijan, with private backing, has been sponsoring informational trips to potential influencers.  I was invited on one of those trips.

Thirty of us from over a dozen countries assemble in Baku.  After introductions and an opening dinner, early the next morning we embark in a convoy of 14 SUVs for the newly-liberated territories.


We race across the Caspian plain to our first stop: the recaptured but ruined town of Agdam.  Formerly inhabited by Azeris, it was ethnically cleansed and systematically destroyed.  It is slowly being rebuilt, although it does not appear that any of the residents have returned. A drone shot reveals the extent of the devestation. This is not war damage -- everything Azeri was systematically destroyed and stripped-mined of any usable building materials.

The town and surrounding former border area were heavily mined by the Armenians.   Painstaking mine-clearing efforts are ongoing.  We witness the detonation of fifteen anti-tank mines.  Even at a safe distance, we can feel the pressure wave from the blast.

Our visit is attended by our own press corps, as our visit is documented for Azeri television and media.  Myself, I am interviewed numerous times. 

Next, a visit to the 18th century Shabulag Fortress, former capital of the Karabakh Khanate.  Here, the topography changes as we enter the Lesser Caucasus mountain range.


Then, a quick stop at a dam holding back almost no water (an ongoing drought), something also deemed a pressworthy event.


We pass numerous destroyed villages, stopping a newly-built one.


There is not a lot of subtlety in the message.  (The spelling variant of Karabakh/Qarabag comes because the name is transliterated from the Cyrillic alphabet.)


Even though we are just minutes away from a newly-built hotel, the direct route runs through Armenian-held land. Instead we drive in a giant loop around the hostile territory to reach a mountain resort in "undisputed" Azerbaijan where we spend the night.


The next morning we start out through the mountains.  Nice scenery.  There are hot springs and an abandoned Soviet-era sanatorium.  These days the bubbling waters are free — providing you don’t mind bathing in scalding pools on the side of the road (and being interviewed whilst doing so.) 


We are driving to Shusha, the historic capital of Karabakh, where are scheduled to spend the second night.  The route is through the mountains, very scenic but relatively slow.  But, in late afternoon, when we reach the town of Lachlin, our plans are altered by events: Armenian snipers have shot an Azeri soldier.  Although we are but thirty minutes from our hotel, to get there we would need to cross the corrider. The road has been closed road to civilian traffic.  We have no choice but to drive ten hours on a secure route through the mountains back to where we spent the previous night.  The condition of the road is somewhat less than ideal — good thing we have vehicles that can handle it. That’s why they call it adventure travel.


Day three, we set out again, once again looping around the Armenian enclave.  We are still driving to Shusha but this time taking the newly-built “Victory Highway.”  Along the way ruined and abandoned (Azeri) villages dot the landscape.  The government hopes to repopulate the area and has invested heavily in infrastrucure, including an airport, but it is difficult to persuade people who have been city dwellers for more than two decades to return to a rural and agrarian lifestyle.


Shusha is situated on an escarpment that forms a natural fortress.  The denoument of the 2020 war came when Azeri commandos scaled the cliffs and took the Armenian defenders by surprise.  Largely depopulated during the Armenian occupation, the city is slowly coming back to life.


There are Soviet-era giant statutes and an Ottoman fort. Beneath the commanding heights lies Stepanakert (a/k/a Khankendi, its Azeri name), capital of now considerably-reduced Artsakh.   And not far beyond is Agdam, the first place we visited.


After Shusha we visit an army encampment, where we get to play with their toys, shoot guns, and ride on tanks, followed by a delicious catered meal.







We are supposed to spend the night at the camp, but the tense situation dictates another change of plans. is The best choice it seems is to drive through the night to Baku and our five-star hotel.  At least the roads are good and our vehicles comfortable and capacious.


After time to shower and change, we meet with an important government official, a chief advisor to the president.  He is personable, urbane, fluent in English, and media savvy.  His aim for us to take the message home that Azerbaijan is not the bad guy.  Although these trips are castigated by Armenian keyboard warriors as propaganda tours, I do not need to be further convinced; I have seen for myself.



There is a farewell dinner, after which we begin to disperse.  Some of us are moving on to the next MTP event in a very different venue, central Africa.


Part II -- No politics allowed


What the two halves of this trip have in common is Charles Veley, the world’s most traveled human.  He invited me and was the leader of the Karabakh expedition.  He is also founder of MTP – Most Traveled People – an organization dedicated to “systematic travel”, another term for visiting every country and territory on earth.  The first-ever MTP conference will be taking place in Equatorial Guinea.  (This is similar to but distinct from the Extraordinary Travel Festival I attended last Fall in Armenia.  That was organized by Nomadmania a travel club that is a friendly rival.)  A principal reason for the venue is that Equatorial Guinea has been, until now, a notoriously difficult visa to obtain.


One reason that you have probably never heard of the country is that, on a two-page atlas map of Africa, Equatorial Guinea is hidden underneath the staple.  Formerly the colony of Spanish Guinea, it is the only Spanish-speaking country in Africa.  Its capital, Malabo, is on the island of Bioko (the former colony of Fernando Po) in the Gulf of Guinea. (Bioko forms a line with Sao Tome and Principe, formerly Portuguese islands now the smallest country in Africa.)  Apart from Bioko and Annobon islands, the country is also encompasses a chunk of the African mainland, the former Spanish colony of Rio Muni.

Thanks to offshore oil (and Exxon), the nation is quite rich, but the people are not.  As in much of Africa, the wealth benefits the ruling elite.  The president, in office since 1979, is the world’s longest-serving leader.  Freedoms are almost non-existent: permits are required to visit anywhere, checkpoints ubiquitous, and taking pictures of government buildings (which is all of them) prohibited.

This only permitted political activity is congratulating the president, thanking the president, and urging his reelection (not much doubt there!)  On exiting the airport there is a tollbooth at which I quip “now comes the contribution to the presidential campaign fund.”  Sure enough, plastered to the side of the booth is an election poster with his smiling face.


I have a free day to tour the island. 







The democratic pantomime does benefit the people in one respect: free T-shirts at election time.  Our tour guide obtains for me a very nice polo shirt, probably designating a precinct captain, and now a cherished souvenir.



The next day we fly to Bata, the principal city on the mainland, where we are met and driven to the conference hotel.  Completely alien to this part of the world is the road to get there: a hundred mile long, four-lane divided highway. Devoid of other traffic, it widens to eight lanes at a toll plaza. The booths are unmanned, but someone wanders over to attend to our vehicles.  In other spots makeshift checkpoints consist of a bamboo pole leaned against a tire.

Our destination is the Grand Hotel Djobloho in Cuidad de la Paz, a yet-to-be inhabited new capital that is the president’s fever-dream in concrete. The place must be seen to be believed: a 425 room five-star-plus luxury hotel in the middle of the jungle, an 18 hole golf course and fifty presidential villas.  All for a someday meeting of the leaders of all the African nations.

Most amazing of all is that despite a dearth of clientele the hotel and surrounds are in tip-top condition.  European management and staff maintain the facility and keep service at the highest standards.


The catering is superb. Every meal is a presentation.


The conference itself is a blast.  145 attendees from 39 countries.  27 UN Masters (those who have been to all 193 UN member countries).  Speakers on traveling in danger zones, getting a diplomatic passport, running a luxury hotel in Antarctica, traveling from Denmark to Tanzania on foot, photography tips, traveling into space, etc.



We are the first international conference the hotel has hosted. We enjoy the facilities but are dwarfed by their scale.


Other hotel amenities include playing with the resident chimps and the occasional stray pangolin.

On the third day sixty of us board a charter flight to Annobon Island, the only part of Equitorial Guinea south of the equator.  We depart from the purpose-built but otherwise flightless nearby airport (but not its VIP terminal). The ascent affords a view of the hotel complex carved from the jungle.



The island is an extinct volcano.  We hike to the lake in the caldera.  Not spectacularly different, but an otherwise very difficult place to reach as there are no commercial flights and the journey by ferry from Bioko would take three days. We are back at the hotel by sunset for our final dinner.



After the conference the participants scatter to resume globetrotting.  Some go overland to Gabon.  Others to Ethiopia.  Still others to Europe, Asia, and beyond. I fly back to Malabo for an overnight stay.  Donning my Presidential shirt, I set out for a walking tour of the city.  It serves as a cloak of invincibility — no beggers, no hassle, and no police.

Finally, a summer’s day’s stopover in Frankfurt. Who are all these people on the street? Why aren't they at work? This is Germany, not Italy or Greece!



 Trip date: June 2023